BPU extends utility cutoff moratorium until Aug. 4

The Kansas City, Kansas, Board of Public Utilities voted unanimously on Wednesday night to extend a moratorium on utility disconnections to Aug. 4.

Previously, the moratorium was scheduled to end July 30.

A full report is scheduled on the utility disconnections at the Aug. 4 meeting, General Manager Bill Johnson told the board Wednesday night.

Board member Jeff Bryant proposed the extension, saying that he would like to hear the report about the program scheduled at the Aug. 4 BPU meeting before the board makes a decision about the moratorium ending.

The BPU discussion took place on the eve of another heat wave predicted for Wyandotte County. Also, it’s only a few weeks before the Aug. 3 primary election, which includes some BPU positions.

Johnson reported that a state utility assistance program, the Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance (KERA) program, has paid utility costs for 174 BPU customers, for a total of about $123,000.

Johnson said BPU has 1,022 rental residential customers who are over 60 days delinquent on their accounts. About 710 applications have been made to KERA from BPU customers, he said. KERA reported the number to the BPU. About 535 customers’ accounts have been flagged to not disconnect them, as they have applied to KERA, he said. Since the beginning of the moratorium, delinquent accounts have almost doubled, according to Johnson.

Bryant noted that at the end of June, about 400 Wyandotte Countians had applied to KERA, and now the number is about 710. At that time, 50 had been assisted by the state, now the number has grown to 174.

He said it sounds like the state is starting to get the program in gear, but there are still a significant number of applications that are not settled yet, more than 500.

Johnson said currently KERA only looks at assisting renters, not homeowners, but in the future they will be looking at adding homeowners. With the moratorium, the BPU is not disconnecting any residential customers, whether homeowners or renters, he said.

He said although there are 1,022 who are delinquent currently, and not all have applied for assistance, some of them will not qualify, and some are not applying, for unknown reasons.

Bryant said he is not prepared to remove the moratorium, knowing there is one-third of the total in arrears who have made application and are waiting. It’s a considerable number that could be shut off, he said.

Board member Tom Groneman suggested sending messages to the delinquent renters, telling them they could qualify for KERA assistance, and telling them information about applying for the program.

Johnson said they have listed the KERA program in many communications, and have added that residents can also seek out other assistance, as well. There are other utility assistance programs offered through the BPU and the United Way.

Johnson said with this moratorium, and also with the last two moratoria, some customers tend not to apply for assistance, and the amount of delinquent accounts grow.

Groneman suggested sending messages directly to people who are delinquent on their accounts, not just sending out a general message.

Board member Rose Mulvany Henry agreed about sending the direct messages. She said it could result in BPU getting money from the state, without placing the burden on customers. The state received funds for utility assistance from the federal government.

Johnson added the BPU has done more with getting the word out on this program than on other programs in the past. KERA has told the BPU it has been the most active group in the state. He said they would try to promote it more, tell people where to go to seek assistance and make an application.

Board member Mary Gonzales noted it has been reported that the KERA program required landlords to make application with the renters, and some landlords would not apply.

Johnson said the state is trying to figure out how to move away from the landlord requirement, which is one of the huge roadblocks. If they could clear that hurdle it’s likely they would see more applications approved, he said.

Bryant said the other 500 delinquent accounts that have not applied for assistance means the utility could be missing out on $350,000 in payments. The BPU could possibly receive the funding if renters applied for assistance with KERA. If the accounts go unpaid, all the other customers of BPU have to pick up the bill.

“If the state or federal government steps in and pays, the ratepayers win and so does the utility,” Bryant said.

Johnson said they would try to contact the 500 or so customers, possibly with a call or robo call, to let them know they can apply for KERA assistance.

Johnetta Hinson, executive director of customer service, said the BPU has contacted the United Way and discovered that the United Way and its agencies were not being contacted for assistance as much as previously.

While the community’s need has exceeded the amount of United Way funding available, there was still some funding available from the United Way agencies, according to officials.

“There may not be as many applying, but the money is available,” she said.

The utility assistance programs through BPU also have decreased as well, she said. There are delinquencies, and there is some money available, but they don’t have as many people applying at this time, she said.

Johnson said KERA officials have told him that customers may apply for KERA assistance as well as assistance at other agencies.

In another BPU report, BPU officials said the utility currently has two COVID-19 cases, the first cases after some months of having no cases.

To see more information on the KERA program and how to apply for it, visit https://kshousingcorp.org/emergency-rental-assistance/.

To contact the United Way of Greater Kansas City about assistance, call 211.

The BPU’s customer service phone number is 913-573-9190.

To see a story from June 22 on the BPU utility moratorium on cutoffs, visit https://wyandottedaily.com/bpu-approves-one-month-moratorium-on-utility-disconnections/.