The Board of Public Utilities, in a unanimous vote at a special Zoom meeting Tuesday night, June 22, approved a one-month moratorium on residential utility disconnections.
Board member Jeff Bryant made the motion for the moratorium, and it was seconded by Rose Mulvany Henry. Bryant said he would like the board to review the decision at the BPU’s second meeting in July to determine whether an extension would be granted then.
General Manager Bill Johnson said the moratorium on residential disconnections will go into effect on Wednesday, June 23. It will be in effect through the end of July.
The BPU at its June 16 Zoom meeting heard from activists with Build Power MoKan urging another moratorium on electric shutoffs. The group has appeared at BPU meetings for some months, making comments during the public comment segment.
On June 16, the activists said there had been thousands of BPU customers disconnected since the earlier moratorium ended this spring. At the Tuesday, June 22, meeting BPU staff did not have the total number of disconnections since April available at the meeting.
Board members asked for the number of customers disconnected because of inability to pay their bills, as there also may have been other disconnections because customers were moving.
Board members were seeking more information from the staff about the number of people with delinquent bills and the number of people affected by disconnections.
Since it appears that the state’s utility and rental assistance program, Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance (KERA), only covers renters and not homeowners, board members said they also were concerned about homeowners who may have trouble paying their utility bills. KERA is a program started this spring at the state level after receiving federal funds.
Lori Austin, chief financial officer for the BPU, said in answer to a question from board member Ryan Eidson that the BPU was owed about $825,000 in accounts that are more than 61 days overdue. Some of those customers have made payment arrangements with the BPU, she said. The overdue accounts figure is down from April, at the end of the last moratorium.
Board member Mulvany Henry said she had thought about this utility moratorium issue almost constantly since their June 16 meeting.
The BPU board has it in their control to do something in the community for those who need help, she said.
Bryant said he had thought long and hard since the board’s June 16 meeting, and had consulted with some of the ratepayers in his district.
“There’s an overwhelming need in our community,” Bryant said.
He added his fear is that the 348 applications to KERA from Wyandotte County are just the tip of the iceberg, and many BPU customers don’t understand the program is available, or have other hurdles that make it difficult to apply.
The state has been struggling with implementation of the management of the program, he said.
Board member Mary Gonzales said it’s likely there are many people who are struggling and could be eligible for KERA assistance, but are probably not applying.
She asked if some additional information about the KERA program can be placed on the BPU’s website, so that more people could see how to apply for it. Eidson also asked for more information to be placed on the website in a prominent place and made available to customers.
BPU chief communications officer David Mehlhaff said he would be working on that soon. He also said the information about KERA is contained in news releases that are already posted on the BPU’s website. The BPU has previously posted some KERA information on its social media pages. He said he has been working on the BPU printed newsletter that will be sent out to each residence soon, including information about KERA, which will be available for those who don’t have the internet.
Johnetta Hinson, executive director of customer service at the BPU, said more than 400 KERA applications have been made from Wyandotte County. Currently, more than 50 payments have been made from KERA to BPU totaling about $38,000, she said.
Bob Milan Sr., board president, was in favor of the 30-day moratorium, but he also pointed out that bills may just continue to accumulate when there is a moratorium. The bills are just due later, when they may be larger and it may be harder to pay them, unless assistance is received.
What they’re doing is just prolonging the agony, Milan remarked. Somewhere along the line it has to come to an end, he added.
The BPU encourages customers who have trouble paying their bills to call the customer service department and arrange a payment plan.
Milan said ratepayers are paying for services that they use before the bill was received. Customers have already received around a month’s service before their payment is due, he said. In that sense, the customer already is using the service for free until their bill is paid, he said.
When the BPU confirms that a KERA application has been completed, it puts the customer’s account on hold and does not turn off the electricity, according to BPU officials.
After a payment is made or the customer is denied by KERA, then the hold is taken off the customer’s account, according to officials.
Some customers, however, are unaware that an assistance program exists or do not understand how it works, according to activists at earlier meetings.
At earlier meetings, the utility heard reports that there had been delays in processing the applications with the new program. Also, activists said some members of the community needed assistance in filling out the form, and some did not have access to the internet to file the form.
While local nonprofit agencies have lent a hand in helping applicants, the local agencies are not receiving reimbursement from federal funds for this assistance, according to information presented at earlier BPU meetings.
Johnson said he would like to ask officials in charge of KERA if there was any way to provide assistance to local agencies, such as the United Way, that are helping with the applications. The BPU has a meeting scheduled with those officials in early July, he said. In Missouri, utility assistance funds were distributed to cities and counties, and then given to nonprofit agencies to distribute, he said.
Last winter, before this latest federal program, some utility assistance funding went through the Unified Government, and then to agencies, he said.
Mulvany Henry suggested asking the UG for additional help, and said she would speak to other UG elected officials.
Hinson said there were five criteria listed on the KERA website to qualify for assistance.
Those included: the tenant rents his or her home; the tenant’s 2020 household income did not exceed 80 percent of the area’s median income; at least one member of the tenant’s household is experiencing documented financial hardship as a result of the COVID pandemic, such as loss of employment, reduction in household income or significant COVID-related expenses such as medical bills; at least one member of the tenant’s household is uncertain where he or she will stay or may become homeless without housing assistance; and the applicant can provide valid proof of identification.
For more information on KERA assistance and more guidelines, visit https://kshousingcorp.org/emergency-rental-assistance/.
For other assistance with food, housing and utilities, the United Way’s telephone number is 211.
To see earlier stories about utility cutoffs and moratoriums, visit