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'We pay enough.' Wyandotte County residents oppose utility rate increase

 Around 20 or so people sit in rows of chairs, listening attentively. A BPU poster hangs behind them.
Eva Tesfaye
KCUR 89.3
Wyandotte County residents spoke up against the rate increases at a hearing on Wednesday.

The Kansas City Board of Public Utilities is proposing to increase electricity and water rates for Wyandotte County, but many say the hikes would hurt low-income residents.

The Kansas City Board of Public Utilities is proposing to increase electricity and water rates for the residents of Wyandotte County.

The proposal includes a 2.5% increase for electricity rates starting in July and another 2.5% increase in July 2024. Water rates would increase by 6% starting next month, as well. The board will vote on the proposed hikes at the next board meeting on July 5.

BPU said that aging infrastructure, inflation and maintenance costs are some of the reasons for the increase, but residents said that utility bills are already too high for the low-income community.

“We need to replace aging infrastructure, which is our main leaks and stuff like that,” said Steve Green, the executive director of water operations. “We also need to improve our system reliability, build our cash reserves and meet our financial guidelines.”

Water rates have not increased since 2013 and electricity rates last changed in 2018.

High utility bills

Tensions were high at BPU’s first public hearing that went late Wednesday night with many residents expressing that they felt tired, frustrated and unheard.

“We’re exhausted. We have been sitting here since 7 o'clock and we listened for two hours to a bunch of mumbo jumbos that most of us didn't even understand,” said Renee Van Ross, a Wyandotte County resident.

Residents also complained that their utility bills are already too high.

“We pay enough. Wyandotte County is one of the poorest counties in the state,” said Van Ross. “Why do they keep doing this to us? Because they know they can. Because we have no other choice.”

Residents gathered at a park across the street from BPU's building for a cookout before the hearing.
Eva Tesfaye
KCUR 89.3
Residents gathered at a park across the street from BPU's building for a cookout before the hearing.

Many residents pointed to fees as the culprit of high utility bills. For example, the PILOT fee, or “payment in lieu of taxes,” is collected by the Board of Public Utilities, but the money goes to the Unified Government.

“Our bill, my family's bills personally have been over $400 and over half of those at times have been fees alone,” Sarah Lynch, a Wyandotte County resident and member of the Community Conscious Action Network, told BPU at the hearing.

“And that's saying nothing about the PILOT,” she added. “We understand you guys just assess it, but the UG controls it. But we need an adjustment on those fees if we're going to raise the rates.”

Clean energy options

The Sierra Club intervened in the proposed rate increase and presented its own analysis of how BPU can make up the costs at a second hearing on Thursday.

It made recommendations such as taking advantage of federal funds for clean energy available through the Inflation Reduction Act, retiring Nearman Creek Power Station, a nearby coal plant, and avoiding long-term coal contracts.

Ty Gorman, the senior campaign representative for the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, said in addition to preventing the unusually high costs it would take to keep operating and maintaining the plant, shutting it down would improve quality of life for a community that suffers health risks from industrial pollution.

“The incidents of asthma and the life expectancy here is much worse than Johnson County right across the river,” he said, “and the statistics are really clear that having a coal plant in proximity there is a terrible thing for a community.”

When asked about retiring Nearman, BPU General Manager Bill Johnson said the utility’s analysis showed it would not save money.

Kansas City, Kansas resident Brook Anthony Williams came to the hearing to oppose the rate increase and support the retirement of the Nearman plant. "I'm a tree hugger, so I care about my environment and I care about big conglomerate companies overcharging us, which is why we're here today," he said.
Eva Tesfaye
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City, Kansas resident Brook Anthony Williams came to the hearing to oppose the rate increase.

“In fact, I think we could show data to where it would probably cost us more money to do that,” he said, “because of some of the things that we're already doing with our green energy portfolio and the things that have been tested out and proven out in the market.”

The proposal also introduces the new “Green Rider” program, which will work with BPU’s industrial and commercial customers to help them reach their renewable energy goals.

While the program may help corporate customers, resident Brook Anthony Williams said little is being done for them. He said the Nearman plant is just one of many environmental justice issues that his community has to deal with.

“Around the world where conglomerates or companies want to do something that they don't want in their community, they'll do it in the inner city or in a suburb where the poorest people live,” he said.

Eva Tesfaye covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member.

I report on agriculture, food and water issues for Harvest Public Media and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk. I’m based at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. If you have story ideas, you can reach me at etesfaye@kcur.org or on Twitter @EvaRTesfaye.
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