BPU also transfers $250,000 for utility assistance funds and stops cutoffs through end of year
by Mary Rupert
The Kansas City, Kansas, Board of Public Utilities Wednesday night passed its budget despite pressure from a grassroots community group to vote no.
The budget passed 4-2, with members David Haley and Rose Mulvany Henry voting no.
Also at the meeting, the BPU board approved a transfer of an unused $250,000 from the economic development fund to a utility assistance fund for needy customers.
General Manager Bill Johnson announced he had ended utility cutoffs through the end of the year. Wednesday night will be one of the coldest nights of the year, with a low temperature of 1 degree.
During the meeting, several community members spoke in favor of the board voting no on the budget until there was more community input into it.
For those watching the meeting on Zoom or listening on the phone, there were technical problems beginning at the first community comment speaker that cut off the audio and continued for more than a half hour. The meeting went on in person.
Evelyn Hawthorne, a resident, said the BPU bills were too costly with the added Unified Government fees and charges on them. She asked, “Why do we have to subject ourselves to this foolishness? … We need help.”
One of the community group’s organizers, Louise Lynch, said she was ill today and so was calling in remotely. She said she found it very discouraging and disrespectful that the remote listeners were cut off. She is one of the organizers of the Community Conscience Action Network group.
Among the reasons not to approve the budget were bills, salaries and various areas of the budget, she said. “I urge you to make a real plan to take the community seriously and give us our due respect,” Lynch said.
Ty Gorman, a community activist also working with the Sierra Club, said he wasn’t encouraged about the communications difficulties Wednesday night. He said a lot of people tried to get access by Zoom or phone but they didn’t have an hour to wait around to get to speak while the technical issues were being fixed.
Gorman also urged the board not to vote on the budget. He asked that the increased salaries, such as the general manager’s raise, not be approved and that there would be a continuation of last year’s budget until the community can be brought in on the decision-making process.
He said engaging stakeholders early and often through a well-publicized process was a best practice from national organizations. There should be transparency and respect built around the process, planning and open door policies, he said. Barriers to access should be evaluated and eliminated, he said. An integrated resources plan is needed, he said.
He urged the BPU to put in place a short-term moratorium and look at policies that others have in place. He favored eight weeks notice for shutoff after two notices, no late fees and no reconnection fees.
“I agree with one other speaker, Evelyn Hawthorne,” Gorman said. “BPU’s going to get their money. We need to listen to the community.”
Gorman said he would speak later about access to the meeting that was cut off for remote listeners on Wednesday.
According to BPU President Mary Gonzales, the $250,000 transfer for assistance for the needy will go to the United Way, which will distribute it to the agencies that are normally used for utility assistance in Wyandotte County. The money will be only for Kansas City, Kansas, or Wyandotte County residents. It can be carried over to next year. Next year’s total utility assistance funds from BPU will be closer to $500,000, according to Lori Austin, chief financial officer.
Those agencies listed on the BPU’s website as providing utility assistance include Avenue of Life, Catholic Charities, Cross-Lines Cooperative, El Centro, EOF, Northeast, C and D Center, Low-Income Emergency Assistance Program, Metropolitan Lutheran Ministries, Salvation Army, United Way and Vaughn-Trent Community Services.
The BPU budget of $389.2 million includes $238.6 million in operating funds, $58.9 million in debt service and $68.1 million in capital expenditures, according to Austin. It is a $38.5 million or 11 percent increase from last year.
The majority of the operating budget is fuel and purchase power, Austin said. A BPU spokesman cited higher personnel costs, higher costs for materials nad services and increased fuel and purchase power costs.
Johnson said they hope the market returns to normal levels with gas and other energy prices on the market outside of the normal levels they have experienced previously.
“Every utility suffers with high fuel costs,” he said.
David Haley, a BPU member and a state senator, said he did not support the budget and voted against it. He said he was pleased to see money transfer to the United Way assistance fund from the economic development fund.
He said he wanted BPU to have greater customer service, and was interested in finding a way for the lobby to reopen for customers. He also was in favor of taking the UG charges off the BPU bill. The penalty for not paying UG property taxes is a tax sale in three years, and the penalty for not paying UG taxes found on the utility bill is disconnection, he said.
Haley said he met a person at the new warming center that opened last night at 550 State Ave. whose problems included getting caught up on his BPU bill.
“We’re a public monopoly,” Haley said. They need to find a way that people are not waiting to spend the night at a warming center, he added.
Tom Groneman, a board member, said he received many messages to vote no. They have been working on the budget six months or more and took the opportunity to go over the budget. He said he thought the budget that passed was a good budget. However, he pointed out the money budgeted doesn’t have to be spent.
He said there was much discussion about using federal dollars and that it takes time for those dollars to trickle down. They need to be diligent and make sure they get every dollar available, he said.
He called on those attending the meeting to help separate the BPU and UG charges on utility bills. The board hasn’t had any luck with convincing the UG, but the group can try to get that accomplished in the new year, he said.
Board member Bob Milan Sr. said if they hadn’t passed the budget, on Jan. 1 they would have no water or power.
He invited the community group back to the meetings, held on the first and third Wednesdays, to express themselves during the community comments.
Milan pointed out the residents can’t go to cable TV, telephone or gas company meetings to express themselves.
Rose Mulvany-Henry, board vice president, said the other board members are sincere in that they’re hearing the residents. “The issue I have is that we’re not doing anything,” she said.
The board did not take action on a moratorium on utility shutoffs, and she said she would have voted for it. Also she talked about best practices and more community engagement.
Mulvany-Henry proposed that the board consider in its first January meeting a community-based organization that works collaboratively with the utility to develop some of the best practices.
Johnson said that as of Wednesday, through the holiday season, the BPU is not disconnecting anyone. It did not require a board vote.
Board President Gonzales said she takes the board’s fiduciary duties very seriously. They have gone over the budget for months and asked questions about it, she said.
“Our employees give to United Way in a manner that far exceeds many places,” she said. The funds help those who are in need.
She said they have not done a good job of communicating these things and going forward would do a better job with it.