Committee hearing to be Monday on bill that could bring BPU rates under KCC

by Mary Rupert

A hearing is scheduled Monday on a bill that could place Board of Public Utilities rate increases under the scrutiny of the Kansas Corporation Commission, if customers file a petition.

State Sen. David Haley, D-4th Dist., said he requested the bill be introduced after hearing from many residents that they have not been able to get their issues regarding BPU rates resolved.

“Neither the county commission nor the elected BPU members are able to resolve legitimate questions that ratepayers have,” Sen. Haley said.

He said he often hears from residents who say their utility bills are too high, and who question the PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) fee placed by the Unified Government on BPU bills.

The bill, sponsored by the Senate Utilities Committee, is scheduled for a hearing at 1:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 18, in Room 548-S at the Senate Utilities Committee at the Capitol.

The bill provides for rate hearings before the KCC if a petition is filed by 5 percent of the utility’s customers or 3 percent of any one class of customers. Currently, the BPU conducts its own study and holds its own public rate hearings before rate changes. The bill would authorize the KCC to reduce rate increases, if it finds that the increases are not fair.

Sen. Haley said the bill would allow ratepayers who have questions to contact the Kansas Corporation Commission, a body that regulates private utilities now, for a review of their questions.

Municipal utilities are not included currently in KCC reviews because the assumption is that the board that is elected will handle residents’ concerns or queries, Sen. Haley said.

He said there are many persons in Wyandotte County, including himself, who feel as if legitimate questions or concerns about their electrical and water bills are not being handled by the BPU. Most of the people in Kansas, however, are able to contact the KCC about their utility concerns, he said, as they have a private utility service. He said a neutral arbiter is needed here.

Sen. Haley said too many times, he has heard people running for the BPU board say that they will reduce rates, without any results. Whenever people are elected to the BPU who say they understand its problems, they soon become part of the problem itself, Sen. Haley said.

When asked, Sen. Haley said he is not interested in running for the BPU or for office this year, although he will be interested in following the campaigns of other people who will seek office.

Sen. Haley said he sees the BPU bill as a “haves vs. have-nots” issue, and he is representing people who have trouble paying their utility bills. He said while the bill has a chance of being passed in the Senate, the chances of passage are not as good in the House.

BPU Board Chairman Norm Scott had not yet heard much about the bill when contacted, but said the BPU will oppose it.

State Sen. Pat Pettey, D-6th Dist., said she is not going to support this bill. She added she just heard about the bill on Saturday and now has read the bill. The bill came up at a Democratic breakfast on Saturday where Sen. Haley was answered by Mayor David Alvey, a former BPU member.

“I just don’t see this legislation being necessary, and it is very narrow, it is directed only at the BPU,” Sen. Pettey said.

Often, bills that are directed at only one entity do not get very far in the Legislature, she added.

“I think it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Sen. Pettey said about the bill. It takes state funds to help draw up bills and to hold hearings on them.

She added there could be a privacy issue with one provision of the bill, as one section would allow an individual ratepayer to request the names and addresses of all BPU ratepayers.

Also, she said any ratepayer already has the option to appear at any BPU meeting and directly speak to the board about their issue, which is not the case for the KCC. The KCC is not elected, but is made up of persons who are appointed.

“We have management over it (BPU) because we have our own locally owned utility,” Sen. Pettey said. “Citizens made that decision a long time ago, to have their own utility, their own elected board responsive to people. We do have control.”

The BPU is still under federal and state regulations regarding many aspects of its operations, including emissions, she said.

Sen. Pettey said that while she is not happy to see her own water and electric bill increase, she does have some control over her usage and can take measures to reduce it.

State Sen. Kevin Braun, R-5th Dist., said the bill would give the opportunity for constituents and users of the service to be able to have an appeal if they felt something was inordinate with their rates.

“I think that’s a positive thing,” Sen. Braun said. “All of us like to know there’s a system in place so we can verify things are going correctly. I have a great deal of faith in that process and the higher level of appeal.”

Sen. Braun said he believes the BPU is trying to do the right thing, and he has heard a lot of concerns from his constituents with regard to the BPU. Within the BPU billing is a combination of items, where there is a PILOT tax (placed by the UG) and a number of other things on the bill, such as trash service.

Sen. Braun said this process with the KCC could clarify for the BPU that the rates are correct, or if it is found otherwise, they would have an opportunity to get them in line.

“Either way, the BPU comes out very good with the integrity they have,” he said. “I believe the people in there should welcome this type of bill because it will clear up any confusion about them (the rates).”

Sen. Braun said the constituents in his area that are under the BPU would appreciate the opportunity to have an entity to speak to in regard to an appeal.

Two other persons were contacted for this story, but have not yet responded.

Senate Bill 145 is online at http://www.kslegislature.org/li/b2019_20/measures/sb145/.

Residents let UG know what they’d like to see in a new downtown grocery store

About 40 or more residents turned out Wednesday evening to find out about a new downtown grocery store in Kansas City, Kansas. The community meeting was at Memorial Hall. (Staff photo by Mary Rupert)


by Mary Rupert

What would you like to see in a new grocery store in downtown Kansas City, Kansas?

Some residents who attended the 5:30 p.m. downtown grocery community meeting Wednesday at Memorial Hall wanted to see a full-service grocery store. Others wanted the store to have a butcher and a deli or coffee shop. Still others wanted delivery for senior citizens. Others wanted a range of brands to choose from, including a private label, less expensive, brand. Online ordering and drive-through grocery pickup also were discussed. Those were just a few of the responses.

Residents who attended two public meetings on Wednesday, Feb. 13, at Memorial Hall filled out questionnaires about what they would like to see in the new store and some also talked about it in small groups. Two more community meetings on the grocery store are planned at noon and 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21. The meetings are open to the public.

Rob Richardson, Unified Government director of planning, said there was a good community response for the meetings, and many residents offered their ideas for the new store. The planning department will be making a report on the answers.

An estimated 70 people attended the noon meeting and an estimated 40 people attended the 5:30 p.m. meeting. The UG sent out about 19,000 postcards inviting residents of the central core area to the meetings.

The new grocery store at the southwest corner of 5th and Minnesota Avenue, in what is now a parking lot across from the Reardon Center, will be about 14,000 square feet, said Katherine Carttar, the UG’s interim economic development director. That’s smaller than the Price Chopper at 76th and State, but larger than a typical neighborhood grocery store, she said.

The new grocery will be built by the UG and managed by the Merc, which has a grocery co-op store in Lawrence.

There are plans for a 100 parking spaces to be created along Minnesota Avenue, adding diagonal parking on the street and replacing some of the parking space to be used by the grocery store. A number of spaces in the lot will be set aside for Merc customers, she said.

Three different styles of buildings were displayed on drawings at the community meeting, and residents were asked by Richardson to choose the one they preferred.

Richardson said plans are for construction on the new grocery store to begin this spring, after the plans are approved.

Rita York Hennecke, general manager of the Merc, said the new grocery will be a cooperative, where everyone can shop. It will be accessible from buses that stop in front of the store, and it will be within walking distance for some residents. More parking is being added near the store.

The Merc offers affordable foods, a produce department, seafood, floral, cheese, deli, bakery and coffee shop, she said. There also are foods one would expect in a grocery store, including cereal, bread and other products. This store also will have a classroom to make presentations about food.

In order to figure out the needs of the community, the Merc has been holding meetings throughout the community asking residents what they would like to see in a grocery store. She said the store is a member of AWG and will have the ability to offer less expensive brands that are competitively priced.

“We just want to know what you want us to carry,” she said. She added there are plans to include locally grown produce. She also said it is important to have a staff that reflects the diversity of the community.

She said the Merc expects to employ about 20 to 25 people full-time at the new grocery store, with benefits and wages.

The downtown grocery store is not the only one currently under discussion in Kansas City, Kansas, Richardson said. The Historic Northeast Midtown Association also is discussing a grocery store for an existing building at 1726 Quindaro Blvd. and plans a meeting on it at noon and 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, at 1726 Quindaro Blvd.

The store on Quindaro also could be a co-op, and the two groups planning the stores do not see them as competitive, but just want to serve the community and be successful, according to Richardson.

The UG plans to build and own the new grocery building, and this isn’t the first time they have used a similar model, Richardson said. The UG previously financed the downtown Hilton Garden Inn, then sold the building in recent years. Also, the UG previously built a movie theater at The Legends Outlets, and within the past few years the building was sold to AMC Theatres, Richardson said.

Upcoming meetings on the downtown grocery store are planned March 11, when there will be a Planning Commission public hearing on the preliminary plan; March 28, at a UG Commission public hearing on the preliminary plan; and April 8, at a Planning Commission public hearing on the final development plan. The Merc will continue to hold smaller meetings on products and pricing.

Financial plans for the new store were not part of the community meeting discussion on Wednesday night, but are being considered in negotiations with the UG administration. A proposed development plan that was in the City Planning Commission agenda for Feb. 11 has some details on it. (See http://public.wycokck.org/sites/planning-agendas-minutes-staffreports/Agendas/February%202019%20CPC%20Agenda.pdf)

In the sale of the downtown Hilton Garden Inn, the funds received were placed in a special asset fund that is available for developments downtown, such as the new grocery store. However, the UG is trying to leverage those funds through a Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) loan and New Market tax credits.

According to the proposed preliminary development plan, the cost of the new grocery store would be $6,697,946. Project costs would be paid from incremental property tax revenues from the project area where the grocery is located, and from other UG funds.

Tax increment financing would not pay all of the costs, with only $882,693 qualifying under the TIF act as redevelopment project costs, according to information from the preliminary development plan.

Besides lease payments from the grocery store operator and local sales tax revenues generated from the grocery store, the UG plans to obtain financing through the Local Initiatives Support Corp. and from New Market tax credits, according to the development plan.

See earlier story at http://wyandottedaily.com/downtown-kck-grocery-store-to-be-on-city-planning-agenda-tonight/.

Residents were asked which of these designs they liked best for a new downtown grocery store. (Staff photo)
Residents looked at drawings of the proposed grocery store in downtown Kansas City, Kansas. (Staff photo by Mary Rupert)
Residents asked questions about the proposed grocery store in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, at a meeting Wednesday night at Memorial Hall. (Staff photo by Mary Rupert)
UG Interim Economic Development Director Katherine Carttar, left, said the street in front of the store will be restriped to add about 100 parking spaces. (Staff photo by Mary Rupert)
UG Planning Director Rob Richardson, left, showed a drawing of the proposed grocery store (on the right) at 5th and Minnesota in Kansas City, Kansas. (Staff photo by Mary Rupert)
Residents discussed options for the new downtown Kansas City, Kansas, grocery store. (Staff photo by Mary Rupert)
Residents asked questions about the proposed downtown Kansas City, Kansas, grocery store. (Staff photo by Mary Rupert)
UG Planning Director Rob Richardson wrote a question on the board, “Where is the YMCA?” The question from a resident referred to an earlier Healthy Campus plan that included a YMCA with a grocery store. Richardson wrote that the YMCA is still raising funds. The projects were separated within the past year. (Staff photo by Mary Rupert)
Answering questions about the proposed downtown Kansas City, Kansas, grocery store. (Staff photo by Mary Rupert)
Katherine Carttar, interim UG economic development director, answered questions about the proposed downtown grocery store. (Staff photo by Mary Rupert)
Residents looked at plans for a downtown grocery store in Kansas City, Kansas. (Staff photo by Mary Rupert)

Bill backed by Innocence Project would expand DNA searches to closed cases

by Mary Rupert

A bill was introduced in the Kansas Senate this week to expand DNA searches to closed cases.

The bill is supported by State Sen. David Haley, D-4th Dist., and human rights activist Alvin Sykes, as well as by the Innocence Project.

Law enforcement agencies frequently send DNA samples to laboratories for testing, and the labs report back the results with DNA matches in the combined DNA index system.

Currently, according to the bill’s supporters, after a person is convicted, the case is closed. When DNA tests are run, the search passes over closed cases and looks for an open case to compare. But if the search includes closed cases, sometimes a match can be made where another person has already been convicted, according to the bill’s supporters, which raises questions about whether the right person is in prison.

If closed cases are excluded from the DNA searches, information that might exonerate individuals can be missed, according to supporters of the bill. A proposed change to the law would mandate notification for both closed and open cases.

Sen. David Haley

“At the end of the day, we in the legal community just want to ensure that the true perpetrators are doing the time, and that innocent people are not,” Sen. Haley said. “It’s a simple concept. Public safety is not enhanced if someone is getting away with a crime and someone else is convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.”

Sen. Haley is a member of the Judiciary Committee, which introduced the bill.

The bill also calls for authorities to share this data from both solved and unsolved cases with the prosecutors’ offices, the original defense attorney and the last known attorney of record, crime victims, surviving relatives and a local organization that litigates claims of innocence.

The bill calls for a closed case task force to develop protocols for a process to be implemented. The proposed task force would include legislators, governor’s office, attorney general, law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, indigents’ defense service, attorneys, victim services, and innocence organization litigators. The task force would submit its report by Dec. 1, 2020, under the proposed bill.

If Kansas passes the bill, it would be the first one in the country, according to supporters.

“It’s a great concept, it’s really common sense,” Sen. Haley said about the bill. “Kansas will be the first to implement it, and I suspect, once it’s passed, others will follow suit.”

Sen. Haley said he appreciated Alvin Sykes bringing this concept to him.

Alvin Sykes (File photo)

“When a sample of DNA is circulated nationwide seeking a matched identification it currently skips over ‘closed cases’ because somebody, possibly innocent, is already convicted for the crime and continues automatically searching ‘open’ unsolved cases for possible matches,” Alvin Sykes said in a statement.

“The Emmett Till Justice Campaign has joined forces with the Innocence Project to prove with this ‘first-in-the-nation’ legislation that if the lab results of the DNA hits are circulated amongst the prosecutors and defense attorneys associated with both ‘closed’ and ‘open’ cases we will systemically identify countless innocent people serving time for crimes they did not commit,” Sykes said in a written statement. “Kansas SB 102 was introduced as a ‘Committee of the Judiciary’ bill by courageous justice champion Kansas Sen. David Haley this week at my personal request based on research and model legislation drafted by the Innocence Project in New York. The Emmett Till Justice Campaign will keep on keeping on turning the poison coming out of Till’s murder in 1955 into the medicine of justice for countless victims of injustices, including the falsely convicted, into the infinite future. We strongly urge all justice seeking Americans to join us in support of Kansas Senate Bill 102 and all similar legislation when it rolls into your state in the future.”

Rebecca Brown, director of policy for the Innocence Project, is supporting the proposed legislation.

“The Innocence Project is thrilled to see Kansas take the lead on a critical innocence reform that will not only help to settle claims of innocence but also help to identify people who committed serious, violent crimes,” Brown said in a prepared statement. “An overlooked corner of our criminal justice system is the ‘black hole’ of ‘hits to closed cases,’ which – absent sound policymaking – will continue to enable miscarriages of justice. We are so grateful to Senator Haley for his leadership and longtime justice advocate Alvin Sykes for bringing attention to this needed area of reform. We are hopeful that Kansas will lead the nation in this important area of reform, demonstrating how stakeholders can work together to make sure our shared justice goals are realized.”

The bill, Senate Bill 102, introduced by the Senate Judiciary Committee, is online at http://www.kslegislature.org/li/b2019_20/measures/sb102/.