David Haley is tired of hearing people complain to him about their Board of Public Utilities bills.
He was so tired, he told the Senate, that he introduced an amendment on Wednesday afternoon that would allow BPU customers to seek answers to their questions about their bills at the Kansas Corporation Commission.
Sen. Haley, a Democrat who represents the 4th District, did not get full support for the amendment from the other Wyandotte County senators, and the amendment failed in a voice vote Wednesday on the Senate floor.
The questions being considered by the Senate were whether Haley’s amendment would provide consumer protection for residents of Kansas City, Kansas, would it add another layer of bureaucracy and expense to services, or whether it would negatively affect the success of the underlying bill that it was being placed on.
The Kansas Corporation Commission is a state agency that oversees private utilities in Kansas. The BPU is not under the KCC; under the state’s laws, the BPU is a public utility governed by a local elected board.
Sen. Haley introduced his amendment on another bill that would require a study of utilities. His amendment would have allowed BPU customers to ask the KCC about any charges, procedures, practices or rule differences, and then the BPU would have provided a timely response to the KCC on the customer’s question.
Sen. Haley said although people are elected to the BPU regularly who promise to make changes, they don’t seem to make changes once they get there. He wanted a neutral third-party such as the KCC to answer questions.
Sen. Pat Pettey, D-6th Dist., whose late spouse was an elected board member of the BPU, on the Senate floor said she was saddened at the implication that this community could not make good choices in electing people to the BPU.
She noted that the BPU board, which meets every other week, has a time on the agenda for citizens to make comments, and the BPU staff is present to handle the comments at that time. Then there is a report to the board on the resolution of the complaint, she said. She said the BPU and its staff have worked diligently to improve customer service in the past 10 years, and have evening office hours for customers, accept credit card payment without an extra charge on the card, and respond to customer needs.
Sen. Pettey said the BPU’s rates are below the investor-owned utilities’ rates and below the national average. They are also taking steps to become more energy efficient and reduce the carbon footprint, she said.
“Presently, if I want to call the KCC about the BPU, I can call the KCC about the BPU,” Sen. Pettey said. “They’ll then refer me back to the BPU, because that’s who should be handling those concerns.”
Sen. Haley said he was standing up for the little guy with this amendment, not the companies.
He cited an example from this past week, when several BPU customers received bills dating from four to seven years ago. He said the KCC would have told customers of other utilities in Kansas that they didn’t have to pay any bill that hadn’t been sent out within a year by their utility. Customers discovered these bills were not legitimate after a number of posts were made on social media, according to Sen. Haley.
“If everything’s all right, why not let people get a clearer understanding without going through their state senator?” Sen. Haley asked.
Sen. Haley said he thought there were thousands of questions to be answered from BPU customers. He mentioned the cold weather rule and some customers who couldn’t get their utilities turned back on, plus people who could not afford to remain in their homes.
Sen. Kevin Braun, R-5th Dist., said he had a lot of respect for the people who work at the BPU, and he thought Haley’s amendment would be better going back to the committee level for more work. He added he did not want to risk the current bill by placing this amendment on it.
Sen. Braun ran unsuccessfully for the BPU 1st District, at large, in 2017. During the 2017 campaign, he said he supported more affordable BPU rates and he was in favor of removing the PILOT tax from the BPU bills.
Sen. Pettey said she has heard from some BPU customers, but they are not in the thousands. She also has heard from some who were happy that their BPU charges were bundled with their trash fees, sewer charges and other charges on the BPU bill, which include the PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) fee.
Sen. Pettey said she found out that the emails some customers received in the past week about old bills were not valid requests. They were attempting to find out how they were sent out, if a former contractor was involved, and if there was some compromise of data.
“This is an elected board by the same people who elected myself, Sen. Haley and Braun,” Sen. Pettey said. “And they do have open meetings. I do believe there is a cost that would be incurred by this amendment.”
A BPU customer would approach the KCC with a question, then the information would have to be provided, and there would be a cost incurred, she said.
Sen. Pettey also told the Senate that utilities in Kansas City, Kansas, were back on faster than in Johnson County or Missouri during a recent storm.
A hearing was held on Feb. 18 in the Senate Utilities Committee on a bill supported by Sen. Haley. However, the bill’s wording at that time was different from the amendment that was presented on Wednesday. The previous bill would have brought the BPU under the scrutiny of the KCC for rate hearings, and at the committee meeting in February, Sen. Haley said that was not what he wanted to propose. He just wanted a place for BPU customers to make comments to a third party and get answers, he said.
Sen. Haley’s bill on Feb. 18 was opposed by several speakers, including a representative of the BPU, the state municipal utilities organization, and the McPherson BPU, a smaller utility which would have been affected by the bill.
At the committee hearing Feb. 18, the BPU representative said he had conducted a survey of BPU customers who were in the BPU’s lobby paying their bills, and the survey had shown a positive response from an overwhelming majority of them.