Activists at the Wednesday, May 19, night Board of Public Utilities meeting asked the BPU board to stop electricity shutoffs.
“There are many being disconnected many people not being serviced, many people struggling,” said an Armourdale resident who also has previously asked the board to stop the electricity shutoffs. The BPU, along with other area utilities, ended the moratorium on shutoffs this spring, with BPU’s in mid-April.
She said a group of concerned individuals and organizations met with the BPU officials in late April, and they felt that the results of the meeting were not to their satisfaction. She also said the BPU did not seem to be concerned about how people would survive.
The resident, who is being treated for the long-term effects of COVID-19, said her family members were all hit with COVID-19 and had long-term effects that prevented them from working. She said she was struggling to make sure her family survives.
She also said her husband relies on electricity to run a medical device that he needs, but that the BPU had not agreed to put that medical device on its approved list of devices for which the electricity has to be kept on.
“It is not their choice not to pay their bill,” the resident said about many people who don’t have funds to keep their electricity on. Some of them were hit by illnesses, such as COVID-19, and others may have lost jobs in the pandemic. They are waiting for utility assistance programs to pay the bill, she said.
Some of the residents have applied for state assistance through the Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance (KERA) program, but delays have been reported in that program.
The resident said at the BPU meeting that they would like to try to get this fixed before summer heat hits, before people start dying, getting heart attacks and getting rushed to the emergency room. She said she was glad to hear there was an extreme heat policy, but she was horrified to hear that only when the heat index outside reaches 105, they will not disconnect the electricity.
“That means if somebody has no electricity, and it’s 105 heat index outside, inside their house you’d better believe it’s at least 130,” the resident said. “For someone with no health issues, that would be deplorable. For someone who’s already struggling to breathe and live, it’s despicable. It is not acceptable.”
“That means if somebody has no electricity, and it’s 105 heat index outside, inside their house you’d better believe it’s at least 130. For someone with no health issues, that would be deplorable. For someone who’s already struggling to breathe and live, it’s despicable. It is not acceptable.”Resident of Armourdale area of Kansas City, Kansas
BPU General Manager Bill Johnson said at the meeting that they are still working on some of the responses to the questions from Build Power MoKan, an advocacy group working to stop utility shutoffs, and would be getting back with them on it.
Ty Gorman, a Kansas City, Kansas, activist, said at the meeting that the activists would like to meet with the BPU board, the BPU general manager, the Unified Government, the mayor, hospital representatives and the governor’s office in the next 10 days about utility cutoffs.
Gorman mentioned the recent reports of unemployment assistance being unavailable for many people who have applied for it, including many in Wyandotte County.
Also, he mentioned the information from the May 5 BPU meeting that there was a very low percentage of eligible Wyandotte County residents who had applied for KERA assistance even though they were eligible (see https://wyandottedaily.com/not-as-many-bpu-customers-signing-up-for-state-utility-assistance-as-may-be-eligible/).
He also said it would be appreciated if the BPU could add more medical devices to its list. The list has very little effect unless there is a prohibition against turning people off on that list who are unable to pay, he said.
Gorman said the requirement that someone in the household has to be receiving KERA assistance or in the midst of applying for it is a “big loophole leaving hundreds of folks in Wyandotte County out of the assistance they need.”
He said there have not been enough messages in Wyandotte County and in Kansas sufficient to receive the applications. There needs to be more proactive assistance for people who are not able to pay their bills and who are being shut off, he said.
According to BPU officials, there has been more communication between the BPU and the KERA program in recent weeks. Federal COVID-19 relief dollars for utility assistance went to the state of Kansas, which is handling applications for emergency utility assistance.
The state is now sending the BPU a list of KERA applicants who are BPU customers, according to officials.
Lori Austin, BPU chief financial officer, said the state is providing the BPU with a list of applicants. The BPU is working through that list, putting an alert on the account to delay the utility cutoffs pending outcome of the application.
The BPU also receives the applications from KERA. They also are receiving emails from customers who have applied, sending the BPU their applications, she said.
On May 5, BPU officials had said 173 individuals had applied in the KERA program from Wyandotte County. The number of current applications was not available at the May 19 meeting. There were over a thousand estimated eligible.
“We have worked with the state, and had many meetings with them on getting us this information,” Johnson said. “When the program first rolled out, we had no awareness whatsoever as to who was applying, what applications were being accepted, who was going to be approved.”
The BPU continued to work with them, he said, and is putting an alert on those accounts with KERA applications pending.
“We’re still asking customers to follow up directly with us when they make applications so we can also identify those in our system,” he said. That is so they have a list of all the persons who made applications, in case some don’t show up on the state list.
Johnson said the BPU is putting everyone who has made a KERA application on a 30-day wait period, where they are not disconnected. Some persons on the 30-day window were automatically extended another 30 days, to give the assistance program time to work, he added.
So far, by the May 19 meeting, the BPU has received one payment from KERA, he said.
He added he hopes that starts speeding up. Johnson said the BPU has sent some information about KERA over to the UG for help in distributing the information in the community.
“It’s not a BPU utility assistance program, it’s a state-sponsored program,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to get all the information we possibly can out to the community. We’re also giving customers time who are making application.”
Board member Rose Mulvany Henry suggested that with some of the other state COVID-19 assistance programs under delays, she wondered if the BPU should start with a minimum of 90 days for the program to take effect. It could take some time to understand it better and find out how the utility will be reimbursed.
“It seems as though there are people trying to take advantage of this program, and we’re still having issues with it,” Mulvany Henry said.
Austin said they have not removed anyone off the hold list, and they are extending the time whether it will be for 30, 60 or 90 days.
Johnson said they still don’t know, after people have applied, if they are going to be approved or not. The customers are still using the service and their bills are still piling up on them, he said. Johnson said he wanted to remind people to take advantage of the BPU’s bill paying arrangements.
Johnson said people may want to consider reaching out to other utility assistance programs as soon as they know they are not approved for funding.
“It is a complicated program, we’re doing what we can,” Johnson said. They could start the waiting period at 90 days, but people aren’t coming off the list until there is some indication that the money will be received by BPU, or there is an indication that they have been denied. They are continuing to keep these people who have applied connected, he said.
During the past few weeks, BPU has continued to work with the state and they have learned more about how the program works, he said. As they learn more about it, the BPU is making adjustments and keeping people connected until there is a notice of who is being approved.
Several community programs already helping with utility assistance, but need is huge this year
Dr. Todd Jordan, chief community engagement officer for the United Way of Greater Kansas City, described the programs already in place for utility assistance, before KERA. The United Way of Wyandotte County merged last year with the United Way of Greater Kansas City, and it kept the same funding for the programs it had last year, along with board representation, its office here and its commitment to Wyandotte County, he said.
He said two programs through the United Way are supported by the BPU, the hardship assistance program and the utility assistance program.
The programs are a safety net for individuals below 150 percent of the federal poverty line who have experienced hardship and are having a hard time paying their bill, he said.
The hardship program is operated through the United Way, and there is a part-time bilingual program manager. They divide the yearly allocation into monthly parts, he said. There was $95,000 available.
To be eligible for the hardship program, customers must have been a continuous BPU customer for six months; and experienced a hardship such as health emergency, change in employment or income status, change in family composition or marital status and unforeseen documented expenses, he said.
Customers who receive assistance from the hardship program must provide documents demonstrating the hardship along with their BPU bill and their ID, he said. The assistance cannot exceed $500, he said.
Customers are eligible for water and light utility services in the program, and they can receive this assistance only once every 12 months, he said. The United Way uses a data tracking system that keeps track of records of users of the hardship program, he added.
Dr. Jordan said the hardship program began in August 2013. Through Dec. 31, 2020, they made 1,989 commitments for utility assistance, he said. Also, $597,821.81 in assistance was provided to BPU customers from 2013 to 2020, he said.
In 2020, they provided 308 households with $98,030.51 in assistance, he said. This year, they were able to supplement it with funds from United Way worldwide at the onset of COVID.
From 10 to 11 percent of customers have received assistance in two consecutive years, Dr. Jordan said.
“The program really does help people meet that one-time burden that they carry, and we usually don’t see them back,” he said.
The most common reason for the hardship tends to be health issues, especially health issues that affect employment, Dr. Jordan said.
“With 2020 and COVID, there were a lot of things that occurred that really changed what we saw for cases because of shutdowns and layoffs and everything else,” he said.
After 2021, they will probably see health and employment as the most significant issues, he said.
“The role of the program is still to provide emergency assistance,” Dr. Jordan said.
One of the challenges they see is individuals who ask for assistance when their electricity is disconnected, he said. That is very stressful, as individuals have to get paperwork together in a short period of time, and then get reconnected. In the meantime, their food is going bad in the refrigerator. It’s always better and far less stressful on the household if people will be proactive in knowing in a couple of weeks they’re going to be eligible for disconnect, and asking for assistance earlier, he said.
Another program, the utility assistance program, is funded through a corporate contribution from the BPU board, he said. This fund matches the BPU employee United Way campaign up to $150,000.
All utilities except for phone, internet services and media are eligible in this fund. It does not pay deposits, connections or reconnection fees.
Participants must be 150 percent of the federal poverty level for the past 30 days, he said. They also must be Wyandotte County residents and cannot receive more than $500 from the fund annually.
A household of one at 150 percent has an income of $19,140 or less, a household of four is $39,300 or less.
“There are about 10,200 families in Wyandotte County that are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.”Dr. Todd Jordan, United Way of Greater Kansas City
“There are about 10,200 families in Wyandotte County that are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level,” Dr. Jordan said.
“While we do provide through your generosity and support a significant amount of money assistance, we still face this fundamental core problem within Wyandotte County of just a high level of individuals living at or just above the federal poverty level,” he said. “When it’s that close, any disruption of household income can cause significant ramifications that can last for a long time.”
The utility assistance program is administered by the United Way and funds are disbursed through eight partner agencies, including Avenue of Life, Catholic Charities, Cross-Lines Community Outreach, El Centro, Economic Opportunity Foundation, Metro Lutheran Ministries, Salvation Army – KCK Citadel and Harbor Light Village; and Vaughn-Trent Community Services.
From January 2009 through Jan. 15, 2021, BPU utility assistance program provided 8,768 commitments for assistance from eight partner agencies, with $1.3 million in assistance for community members in need, he said.
In 2020, the utility assistance program helped 404 households with $102,307.96 in assistance, he said.
Dr. Jordan said they knew that during 2020, with the impact of the pandemic, even though they were able to provide assistance through these programs, it just wasn’t going to be enough to meet the tsunami of demand.
During 2020, the United Way also received a large grant from the Unified Government from federal CARES Act funding, coordinating 13 agencies’ assistance with rent, mortgage and utilities.
This program helped 613 households with $297,829.89 in utility payments and 479 households with $246,249.94 in electric bills, he said. He thanked the UG, BPU and partner agencies who came together to move a large amount of money to needy customers from October to December. It doubled the amount of utility assistance they provided in a given year, he said.
He also thanked the Wyandotte Health Foundation. After the CARES Act funds were spent, the United Way disbursed about $60,000 from the Wyandotte Health Foundation to support rent and mortgage relief and utility payments, he said. About 78 households received $23,867.85 in assistance, and $20,612.50 went to electric bills, he said.
Several agencies were active in assisting with the CARES Act funding, which was a significant collaboration on the part of different organizations to come together.
On the KERA program, Dr. Jordan said, “I don’t really have anything to add, other than I share a lot of the frustrations that came out earlier in the conversation.”
He said he doesn’t know that he could do anything different than the state program is doing, but he also knows there is a lot of frustration on the part of people who have trouble getting timely applications, and getting things processed in the KERA program.
“I know a lot of our agencies have done their best to assist the people with their applications when they can, but they’re certainly not being reimbursed by the state for the time they’re putting in to assist with that process, and more importantly, they (the local agency) also don’t really have a line of sight or any additional information,” Dr. Jordan said. “If an agency helps a person apply, that person keeps calling for weeks on end, wanting to know where their application is. They have no way of knowing other than saying it’s being processed, and they’re making a determination, which certainly hurts the ability of individuals and their trust with that particular agency.”
He said he gives a lot of credit to local agencies that are doing the best they can.
“But at the end of the day, we all have to find a way to navigate the ins and outs of the KERA program as best we can,” Dr. Jordan said.
He said the United Way has moved a significant amount of money to help people in need in the community. He added he wished there were more zeros on the end of those dollars, but they have done the best they can to manage under some unique circumstances.
He wished there were more zeros on the end of those dollars, but they have done the best they can to manage under some unique circumstances.Dr. Todd Jordan
BPU board member Jeff Bryant thanked Dr. Jordan and said the BPU still has limited funds. For them to provide more funding from the BPU level would come out of the ratepayers’ pockets, he said.
Bryant said people should work together to find solutions. They should go to the state and federal governments to make their voices heard that they need more help in Wyandotte County than some of the other counties, because their income level is different than the surrounding counties, he said.
KERA program information is online at https://kera.kshousingcorp.org/kera#/.
To reach the United Way, visit www.unitedwaygkc.org/ or call 211.
To see earlier stories on BPU, KERA and utility assistance programs, visit