Customers in four Kansas cities gather to decry proposed Westar rate hike

Disgruntled electricity customers gathered at sites across the eastern half of the state Thursday night to tell utility commissioners to reject a plan by Westar Energy to raise rates on residential customers and cut bills for big business.

The cross-country hearing was similar to one held 10 days ago in Wichita, but spread out across four cities.

The three Kansas Corporation Commission members gathered in Topeka with the bulk of the crowd, with video conference links to ratepayers in Hutchinson, Salina and Pittsburg.

Westar will gain $31.7 million in annual rates if its proposal is approved. The company is also proposing to rebalance the share of overall rates paid by different customer classes, with residential and small business ratepayers seeing an $83.5 million increase while high-usage commercial and industrial businesses and school districts will share a $50 million cut.

On average, the rate increase proposed by Westar would raise residential bills $7.50 a month, according to the KCC.

Many of the 40 people who signed up to speak to the commission were senior citizens, who said their finances just can’t take the hit.

“We are a fixed-income town,” resident Eileen Keeler said at the Hutchinson site. “This is going to strike at fixed-income people.”

Bob Wollin, speaking from Topeka and representing the American Association of Retired Persons, said the Westar proposal is part of an ongoing pattern by state government to favor big business and wealthy interests at the expense of the poor and middle class.

“If this was an isolated thing, I wouldn’t even be here,” Wollin said.

But he said the proposal comes against a backdrop of decisions by Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature to make the state more pro-business.

Among those decisions was to “extend elevated sales tax rates to eliminate income taxes on 190,000 businesses; reducing our income taxes, mostly on the high income earners; eliminating the refundable food sales tax (credit), eliminating the renters’ homestead (exemption), reducing the earned income tax credit,” he said.

“Every single one of these items reduces revenue that the state gets from businesses or high-income folks and increases revenue from low-income or fixed-income folks,” Wollin added. “I think in our rush to make Kansas appear pro-business, we are making Kansas appear anti-resident.”

Westar says the shift of rates is justified based on economic models showing that the cost of serving large commercial and industrial customers is cheaper than serving residential and small business customers.

The reason, according to Westar, is that the big businesses tend to draw power consistently throughout the year, while use by the smaller customers peaks in the summer air-conditioning months and declines in winter.

Westar’s vice president of regulatory affairs, Jeff Martin, told the crowd that energy usage across Westar’s 700,000-customer base is split about evenly between residential, commercial and industrial users.

He displayed football-themed graphics showing how, in the company’s view, big ratepayers are off the playing field in terms of their cost of service and the rebalancing would put them back on it.

That’s at odds with the position of the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, the state agency that represents residential and small-business customers.

David Springe, CURB’s chief consumer counsel, told the crowd that a model based on total usage instead of peak demand shows the different classes of customers are paying about what they should.

Customers in all four cities said they weren’t buying Westar’s argument or its football analogy.

“I do not understand, even after listening to the (Westar) presentation, how this model developed this unequalness in the residential rates, that we have not been paying our fair share … that we should be paying more than the large businesses,” customer Pat Pickering said from the Pittsburg site.

From Salina, Joe Rubino called Westar’s justification for cutting big business rates “really duplicitous” and its football graphic “insulting.”

He said businesses that use power 24-7 do so because they make a profit off it and they don't deserve any special breaks for that.

He also testified that he’s concerned that he’ll get hit twice by the rate increase, once at home and again at his small business.

“There is no conscience in this,” he told the commissioners. “You must say no to these corporate crooks.”

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