by Mary Rupert
Community activist Louise Lynch told an audience at the Kansas City, Kansas, South Branch Library on Wednesday night that people are being disenfranchised out of their homes, having water and electricity turned off for nonpayment of their BPU bills.
“That is no longer acceptable for any human beings in Wyandotte County,” Lynch said.
A grassroots community group with links to Sierra Club activist Ty Gorman called for action right away on changing Board of Public Utilities bills, stopping disconnections and implementing a number of environmental goals.
“We can’t wait to examine the charter a year down the line,” Lynch said. “The cold is here today. This is a critical issue.”
Lynch told the story of her family facing major medical issues and relying on life-saving electric equipment to keep her husband alive. Although she had told the BPU that her husband relied on life-saving electric equipment, Lynch revealed that their water had nevertheless been shut off twice this past summer. The life-saving equipment program has no protection from water disconnection, she said.
After being frustrated with responses from the BPU and Unified Government, Lynch held an outdoors meeting in her yard 18 months ago. She said she attended BPU and UG meetings, but nothing happened, except a study of the charter.
A number of community residents spoke at the meeting Wednesday night, sometimes referring to themselves as “victims” and “hurting.”
“We’re being fleeced,” one of them said. BPU general manager Bill Johnson’s recent salary increase was another frequent topic, with Lynch saying at $475,000 he makes more than the president of the United States.
The BPU bill has become a collection service for the UG, residents said. A number of Unified Government bills have been placed on the BPU bill, including such items as trash service, the payment to the UG in lieu of taxes (PILOT fee) and storm water management. The stormwater fee went from $4.50 in 2019 to $14 recently.
Residents called for the BPU and UG to split the bills, sending out UG bills separately, so that residents could more easily make their water and power payments to keep their utilities on.
Another resident told the audience that her daughter’s account had a $300 credit because her ex had paid too much. She was told she didn’t have to pay the current bill, but when she came home, her lights had been disconnected. She had to pay $600 before it could be turned back on, she said. The resident said she’d like to see the BPU use its budget to compensate people from the community to work to educate residents while listening to the residents educate them on what’s not working well.
Another resident’s proposed solution was to file a class action lawsuit. He recounted he had paid $237 on a bill and had 56 cents left to go, and was told to get there and pay it or face a late payment fee.
“It’s just terrible the way we’re being mistreated as humans in this community,” he said.
The T-Bones baseball stadium, a hot issue a couple years ago, was brought up again. Let the residents miss $1 in payment, and they will be disconnected, a resident said. But the T-Bones stadium was able to keep lights on while owing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Candie Leonard Caldwell said, “I know we’re being fleeced.” She recommended reporting it to the Kansas Corporation Commission and taking it to the federal government because nothing has been resolved on the local level. However, the KCC does not oversee public municipal utilities under state law.
Sierra Club: Close the Nearman coal plant
Sierra Club activist Gorman agreed with taking it to the federal government. His proposed solutions included getting billions of dollars available nationally through the Inflation Reduction Act and other federal sources.
A lot of funding could be attached to getting rid of the Nearman coal plant, according to Gorman, and replacing it with clean energy. BPU officials recently outlined at meetings that they are now very diverse in sources of energy. The Nearman plant, however, was put into action during the February 2021 winter storm and it can act as a backup for the utility.
Gorman said the coal plant near 67th and the Missouri River produces pollution in the water and air, raises levels of disease, causes a few deaths per year and is linked to hundreds of cases of asthma, especially in children. It’s not supposed to be in population centers, he said.
Gorman said with the federal government contributing funds to pay more than half the cost of closing, it could drop electric bills.
He also supported getting rid of UG fees on the BPU bill, calling them regressive. Gorman also said grants are available through the federal government to remodel older homes to make them more energy efficient.
“We have to be part of the planning process and apply for that money,” Gorman said about the various federal programs.
Lynch advocated for the BPU to directly return money to the consumers. She did not support the idea of giving BPU assistance funds to the United Way to be distributed to needy consumers, but instead thought any funds should go directly from the BPU to the consumer.
Lynch gave out information, collected names and plans a campaign for residents to contact BPU and UG commissioners. Not waiting another year, she said, “We need to make change happen.”
Lynch urged people to attend a special BPU budget meeting at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 5, an all-day meeting, at the BPU administration building, 540 Minnesota Ave., Kansas City, Kansas. The meeting includes budget reviews. The BPU’s final budget will be presented at its Dec. 14 board meeting.
Rose Mulvany Henry, BPU board vice president, attended the meeting virtually and said she appreciated people sharing their views.
“Everything you say resonates with me,” she said.
Lynch said BPU board member Tom Groneman had been the most help to her when her power and water were cut off.
Also attending the community meeting remotely were UG Commissioners Melissa Bynum and Tom Burroughs. Mayor Tyrone Garner sent a representative.
BPU member David Haley, who had campaigned on some of the issues about disconnection, was at a long-standing committee meeting out of state, and sent a note about the issues:
“Suffice it to say, my long-standing belief and advocacies have been centered around policy inequities and excessive costs at the BPU,” Haley wrote.
“With less than a year serving now on our six member elected board, I believe those mutually held assumptions about BPU have been reflected by my “new” service, including : a) greater access to meetings/proceedings through live audio-visual (“televised”) means and more publicly navigable website (bpu.com) ; b) some “cold-weather” rule changes ; c) held the line on any staff pay increases (while recognizing the board itself is drastically imbalanced and underpaid) ; d) called for the board to pass a resolution enacting TWO monthly bills collectible through BPU, one for actual consumption of the ratepayer of electricity and water and the second for UG taxes (e.g. water sewage, PILOT, trash collection, etc.) ; e) reopening a public human-person interactive customer service center at the utility’s main facility … to name but a few.
“There’s so very much left to do to cure these and other partial ills of what should be our County’s proudest asset; our ability to independently manufacture and provide power and water,” Haley wrote.