BPU officials see some improvement in utility assistance program

Applications for energy assistance are being processed a little faster than before, but not quite as fast as local utility officials hoped.

The state’s utility assistance program was discussed again at the Wednesday night, July 7, Board of Public Utilities Zoom meeting.

Bill Johnson, BPU general manager, said BPU officials met with state utility assistance program directors on July 1 to discuss various issues. The Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance program contains federal funds for rental and utility assistance, and is run out of Kansas Housing Resources.

He said the program has made improvements.

“They’re moving through the application process fairly smooth, not as fast as we hoped, but I think they will pick up steam as they go through the rest of the year,” Johnson said.

At a recent BPU meeting, it was reported there were 247 KERA applications from here, and as of last Friday, there were 460 KERA applications from Kansas City, Kansas, Johnson said. So far, 105 payments have come in to the BPU from KERA.

In the past several months, some customers have spoken at BPU meetings and said that the KERA program’s application process was not working well, and taking so much time that customers were being disconnected from utilities while waiting for assistance.

Johnson said BPU officials discussed KERA program issues such as software problems and staffing.

The requirement that landlords also have to apply with tenants to receive utility assistance has prevented some residents from getting any assistance, as some landlords will not participate, according to BPU officials. The BPU officials asked the state if the rules could be changed in the future, with landlords not required to participate.

The program has a number of hoops that applicants have to jump through before they are approved. For example, the tenant’s economic situation has to be caused directly or indirectly by the COVID-19 pandemic, and tenants have to be below certain income thresholds. Applicants need to submit documentation to prove they need assistance, and landlords have to sign off.

Johnson said he asked why Wyandotte County was not given the money directly to run its own assistance program, and the answer was that Sedgwick and Johnson counties received this direct assistance, but not Wyandotte County because the Wyandotte County population fell under a certain cutoff level.

Instead of a population basis, Johnson said he told the state it should look at changing the formula to a needs basis. Wyandotte County has more need than some other parts of the state.

The $200 million in the KERA program statewide could be expanded by an additional $100 million in the future, but that decision is not final yet, according to Johnson. The program’s first phase is through 2022 and the second phase would be through 2024, he said. The second phase is when they might reexamine the requirements, he added.

Johnson said all utility assistance funds approved by KERA come directly to the BPU, not to the tenants or landlords.

While discussing future changes to the program, Johnetta Hinson, BPU executive director of customer service, asked state program officials to pay in advance on utility bills, instead of after they are delinquent, so that customers are not disconnected so often. She said the BPU can estimate payments for customers by using their past bills, in the same way they estimate level payment plans.

At a recent meeting, the BPU board decided to offer another moratorium during July on utility disconnections for Kansas City, Kansas, residents, giving them more time for their applications for assistance to be processed by the state.

Johnson said a customer may apply for KERA assistance more than once. The program has a 30-day waiting period from the time the customer receives assistance until the time the customer can apply again, according to BPU officials.

He also said that in the fall, the state is discussing offering similar assistance to homeowners who have difficulty paying their utility or mortgage bills.

The program, which provides rent and utility assistance, has listed over 8,600 applications statewide, with close to 2,000 households served and more than $11 million provided in assistance so far, he said.

Board member Tom Groneman discussed the BPU having some specialized customer service representatives on the KERA program, but Johnson said he preferred to have all customer service representatives trained to handle all the various situations, including KERA. That allows the department to be able to be adequately staffed if someone is ill or on vacation. Board member Rose Mulvany Henry suggested looking into the possibility of the BPU receiving funding for staff handling the delinquency cases that were caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

An Armourdale resident again spoke at the meeting, asking why her family’s request for equipment to be placed on the BPU’s life support list was not yet in effect. She also asked why the BPU was still having Zoom meetings and wasn’t having in-person meetings yet.

Mulvany Henry said she would not object to in-person meetings, and if the Unified Government is back to having in-person meetings, the BPU could as well. She added that it should be consistent with health orders, and she also was wary of the Delta variant and the low rate of vaccination in Wyandotte County.

Board President Bob Milan said that he had noticed reports about large increases in COVID-19 cases recently in parts of Missouri and Kansas, and he was concerned about walk-in traffic in the BPU’s offices. He also mentioned it would be good to have input from the Health Department and UG.

Johnson said they previously expanded the life support list, to add three pieces of equipment, and customer service needs to let the community know that the list has been expanded. Other equipment to be added to the list could be considered at a later date, according to Johnson.

For more information, those interested in applying to the KERA program for utility assistance may visit https://kera.kshousingcorp.org/kera12#/.