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/.