Public Opposes Westar's Proposal To Raise Rates

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TOPEKA, Kansas (WIBW) -- A packed house turned out Thursday night at the Kansas Corporation Commission headquarters - most telling Westar Energy they don't want their electric bills going up.

The main question tonight: why would residents bear much of the burden?

The public has spoken - and they are against Westar Energy's $31.7 million rate increase proposal.

Denzal Davidson is on a fixed income and says she can't afford for her bill to climb any higher.

"I have to watch my money and I'm sure there are a lot of other people who do too. That's a tremendous amount of money to come out of a single old lady's money each month.

Davidson said she understood that a possible solution would be to just stop using as much energy. Her response: "I don't want to be cold!"

Westar says it needs the hike, because it isn't making enough revenue and, in part, to make up for environmental projects at the La Cygne power plant near Kansas City. Jeff Martin, of regulatory affairs at Westar, said there are emission control levels that the company must meet that are regulated by the Envrionmental Protection Agency. Westar and KCP&L are funding clean air scrubbers.

If the Kansas Corporation Commission approves Westar's proposal, the average residential customer would pay $7.50 more per month. That translates to using 900 kilowatt hours of electricity per month. Someone who uses 500 kilowatt hours or less would see a four-dollar increase.

Larger commercial businesses would see anywhere from a 6 to 8.3 percent decrease. Public schools would be decreased about 7.5 % or $3.6 million.

"The cost benefit said that it's better for our customers to do the retrofit of this power plant than to go out and build a brand-new power plant somoewhere," Martin said. "Residentials and small commercials are paying less than their fair share, while industrials, schools and some of the bigger commercials were paying less than their fair share."

Martin offers the statistic that residential rates are still 17% below the national average, even with the changes.

Westar said they have taken low-income customers into mind, and have a third-party assistance fund set up to help those who can't afford to pay their bills. Those who need help can apply through Project DESERVE, but the criteria of who can receive the help is not determined by Westar Energy. Martin said Westar only funds the assistance money.

Westar also announced business customers would be given discounts through a separate economic fund.

All of the residents who came to hearing expressed their concerns that they won't be able to afford the increases, calculating them to more than $200 more per year. They called to attention the return rate for Westar stock-holders, which is 8.4 percent.

Some of the rebalancing of funds, as Martin put it, are also in part to recover expenses from an ice storm in 2007. One member in the audience asked how Westar would prepare if Kansas should get another ice storm soon. Martin said Westar has programs in place, such as Reliabiltree, which sends Westar workers out to trim tree branches to avoid them pulling down power lines.

David Springe of the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board (CURB), said Westar has increased rates 18 times since 2009, totalling $469 million. He believes there are other options, and reshifting the rates onto residents by $85 million is not one of them.

"We don't have a safety net for utility customers, we're leaving customers behind, we don't have comprehensive energy efficiency programs," Springe said.

He said Kansas is ranked 45th in the nation in energy efficiency and more money should be used to fund programs that teach people how to use less energy.

Springe addressed Westar's argument that big businesses would get a big break because Kansas needs to be more competitive as far as attracting new business.

"We'd like to be able to charge businesses less because we're becoming uncompetitive as a state, but we're also becoming uncompetitive from a resident standpoint."

One resident speaker at the hearing expressed his concern that Westar is becoming anti-resident.

KCC Chairman Mark Sievers said that they have never denied a Westar rate increase proposal, but they oftentimes approve less than what Westar asked for.

The KCC will make its decision in October, six months after Westar put in the request.

Anyone who has comments, concerns, questions and an opinion about the matter are encouraged to contact the KCC by September 23.

See exact details by searching docket number 13-WSEE-629-RTS on the KCC"s website.