The city of Wichita wants to charge more for its water, despite three rate hikes since January 2010. Westar Energy wants to charge more for its electricity, despite having raised rates four times since its most recent official rate review in 2008. It’s enough to make a Wichitan weep.
True, it can be argued that the proposed rate hikes are relatively modest. Part of a series of likely hikes from now until 2021, the city’s proposed water and sewer rate increases for 2012 might translate into $1.18 to $3.58 a month for a small residential customer and $34.64 a month for a midsize business. Westar estimates its increase would mean another $6.44 a month for an average customer using 900 kilowatt hours a month.
And higher utility bills can serve great long-term goals. Wichita is trying to pay for its ambitious (but costly) project to recharge the vital Equus Beds aquifer with water from the Little Arkansas River. Westar has been investing in plant upgrades and transmission lines that will boost the state’s ability to generate and use renewable energy such as wind power.
Still, the new proposals to raise water and power bills have sparked a communitywide sticker shock. People are fed up, in part because they’ve seen other prices rise as their incomes have fallen or stalled.
They also don’t like being encouraged to conserve, then socked with higher rates when a utility experiences less demand. That has been part of the story behind Wichita’s recent water rate hikes, and Westar cites reduced sales as a reason for needing higher rates now.
Both proposed increases are subject to approval — by the Kansas Corporation Commission in Westar’s case, and by the Wichita City Council regarding water rates.
In electricity rate cases, the public also has an official ally in the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, which scrutinizes whether such requests are justifiable and lobbies the KCC accordingly.
Both CURB and the KCC need to ensure that Westar is warranted in turning to customers for $91 million more to cover employee benefits and expand tree trimming, among other cited reasons.
Meanwhile, the City Council will need to decide whether it’s justifiable to continue to ask residential water users to subsidize commercial customers.
Before water or electricity bills go up, there will be public hearings and other opportunities to comment. Read The Eagle or Kansas.com for notice of those hearings, or go to wichita.gov (for water hearings) or kcc.ks.gov (for Westar’s case).
Short of going without showers and sitting in the dark, people don’t feel as if they can do much about either utility’s bills. But before the rates rise again, there will be opportunities to be heard.