Despite criticism from residents, Wyandotte County utility bills are getting steeper
The Kansas City Board of Public Utilities voted to increase electricity and water rates for Wyandotte County, but residents say they are already overburdened by high utility bills.
Residential electric rates in Wyandotte County will rise 2.5% this year and another 2.5% next year.
The Kansas City Board of Public Utilities voted 4-2 Wednesday on the price hikes along with a 6% water rate increase. The increases kick in next month. BPU last increased electricity rates in 2018, and water rates in 2013.
At the public hearings on the rate increase last month, residents expressed frustration that utility bills were already too high for low-income households.
“The only problem with everything going up is a lot of people in Wyandotte County are still not able to pay their bills, period. So they lose their water or their electricity,” said David Smith, a Kansas City, Kansas, resident who said he had his electricity cut off while trying to resolve the issue with BPU customer service.
BPU staff said that the increase is needed to cover costs associated with aging infrastructure, inflation and maintenance.
Board member Tom Groneman voted to increase the rates, but he said the board should look into lowering fixed costs for the customers who are struggling the most to pay their bills.
“To make sure that we operate and that we’re viable, increasing the rates is sometimes necessary,” he said. “But we also need to look out for the people that are struggling and make some effort to assist them.”
Board members said they would consider creating a program to help offset costs for low-income residents. They asked the BPU staff to come up with the criteria for customers to qualify for such a program and present it to the board in August.
“I understand that the utility needs the increase so that they can continue to operate,” said Rayan Makarem, a climate policy advocate at CleanAirNow, an environmental justice organization in Kansas City, Kansas. “But I hope and wish that they actually go through on what they were talking about of helping people who cannot afford their bills.”
Residents also complained about the PILOT fee, or “payment in lieu of taxes,” collected by the BPU but goes to the Unified Government.
Board member Rose Mulvany Henry said that the board is working with the Unified Government on removing the PILOT fee from the utility bill and putting it on a separate bill.
“It bothers us as much as it bothers you,” she said.
Many asked that BPU provide in-person customer service and bilingual representatives for Spanish-speaking customers.
Esther Almanza, like others, complained of losing her electricity during days of extreme heat and not being able to get help from customer service.
“It's impossible to be living in conditions with no air, no nothing, no electricity, so we all could take that into consideration and just see how people really need help,” she said.
Board member David Haley, who voted against the plan to increase rates, said that he will push BPU to re-open its lobby for customer service and hire bilingual employees.
“That's the kind of utility that we need to be to have customer service at an all time high,” he said.
Shutting down Nearman
The Sierra Club intervened on the rate increase and presented its own analysis that showed BPU could use funds from the Inflation Reduction Act available for clean energy to make up those costs and retire its Nearman coal plant.
“We want zero-emission energy renewables as soon as possible,” Makarem of CleanAirNow said. “We have asked several times for BPU to stop using coal and to switch to more renewables.”
BPU board members made no pledge Wednesday to shut down the coal plant.
“You can't shut it down overnight. It's gonna take a while and you gotta have something to replace it with,” Groneman said. “Once we get the plan and what Nearman's future is, then we can address that at that time.”
General manager Bill Johnson said that BPU has a team exploring how federal Inflation Reduction Act money might be used to modernize the utility’s power plants. Mulvany Henry said Wyandotte County would be a good candidate for spending federal dollars to reduce greenhouse emissions.
“We have to take advantage of the infrastructure funding that is out there that is being offered by the federal government today,” she said. “This community … could be a poster child of what (the federal government is) trying to do.”