The Kansas City Kansas Board of Public Utilities.
The Kansas City Kansas Board of Public Utilities. (Chase Castor/ The Beacon)

Several years ago, Josie Garcia of Kansas City, Kansas, saw her water bills from the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities soar as high as $700 a month. 

Garcia had her insurance company check to make sure nothing was leaking, she said. She called the BPU. A technician came to her house and said the problem must have been in the house but didn’t check the meter. 

She contacted the BPU again and demanded they check the meter. They did and then installed a new one, which corrected the problem. 

“They never paid us back the excessive amount of dollars we paid due to the issue,” Garcia said. “If there’s any way I can help somebody else or get my money back, it would be nice.”

Garcia is one of 53,000 water customers in the BPU’s more than 150-square-mile service area, which includes Kansas City, Kansas, Edwardsville, southern Leavenworth County, parts of Bonner Springs and a small part of Johnson County, BPU spokesman David Mehlhaff confirmed. The publicly owned, self-governed utility serves 65,000 electric customers covering 127.5 square miles.

The BPU bills itself on its website as “one of the top public utilities in the nation” and says it provides electricity “at some of the lowest rates in the nation.” The website also boasts of being “one of only 83 of the more than 2,000 municipal utilities to receive the Reliable Public Power Provider (RP3) designation by the American Public Power Association and one of only seven public utilities in the country to receive the ‘Gold’ award for its water system from the American Water Works Association.” 

Despite these plaudits, other current and former BPU customers told The Kansas City Beacon they had similar experiences to Garcia’s. They received exorbitant and confusing bills for water, electricity or both, despite what they said seemed to be steady usage month to month.

They also said the BPU’s customer service department was hard to reach and usually unhelpful. Some said they had moved from Kansas City, Kansas, to avoid dealing with the BPU or knew others who did.

Mehlhaff, though, said the utility receives few customer complaints. He said the BPU was “always ready to answer questions or resolve any issues,” including inspecting a ratepayer’s meter if their usage seems unusual. He attributed some increased electricity and water consumption to people working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic and to normal increases in electricity usage in hot weather. 

The utility refers ratepayers to a tool on its website called Energy Engage, which enables them to track their electric and water usage in real time. The BPU also uses “smart” meters, which flag continuous or otherwise unusual water usage, which could be caused by a leaking toilet, for example. 

The BPU conducted its most recent customer survey in 2019, Mehlhaff said, with the following results:

  • 76.6% of respondents said they were satisfied with the BPU’s water service.
  • 72% were satisfied with its electric service.
  • 57% were satisfied with customer service overall.

What is a PILOT, and why is it on the bill?

Faith Rivera is among the BPU’s dissatisfied customers. Rivera is a lifelong Kansas City, Kansas, resident and an activist working on behalf of BPU ratepayers. She ran unsuccessfully for a BPU board seat in 2019 and for state representative in District 37 in this year’s August primary. 

Rivera said she ran for the BPU board because she was concerned “as everybody in the community is” about excessive, confusing bills and “horrible” customer service. 

“You have to have a degree in BPU to understand the bill,” she said.

Rivera questioned why BPU ratepayers, in their monthly bills, must also pay a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) to the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas. The Unified Government, not the BPU, dictates the PILOT. 

Mehlhaff described the BPU as “an agency of” the UG and as such, the UG’s “bill collector.” The PILOT payment sometimes constitutes more than half of BPU ratepayers’ monthly bills. The BPU also provides other billing services for the UG, which appear on BPU bills for services including wastewater, stormwater, trash and taxes.

In a Facebook post from Aug. 3, the BPU explains how a PILOT, which it says many cities charge, differs from a franchise fee, which others charge. The PILOT compensates the Unified Government for uncollected property tax revenue because of the BPU’s tax-exempt status. 

Ratepayers of privately or investor-owned utilities pay a franchise fee on their monthly bills. The fee typically reimburses utility companies’ costs to use public right-of-way for infrastructure such as gas pipelines and power lines.

Under a Unified Government charter ordinance, the UG can assess a PILOT of no less than 5% and no more than 15% of the BPU’s revenue for a given year. The UG set the PILOT at 11.9% in 2014 and it has stayed at that rate through 2022. That percentage yielded payments to the UG of $31.7 million in 2021, down 3% from $32.7 million in 2020 and down 8% from $34.1 million in 2019. Payments this year through October total $29.6 million, according to UG spokesperson Krystal McFeders. 

The PILOT constitutes 22% of the general fund budget for Kansas City, Kansas. The city uses PILOT revenue to fund all services provided through the general fund.

The utility’s most recent increase in electric rates was 4% in 2018, Mehlhaff said. The most recent increase before that was in 2013. Costs for fuel and purchased power have risen slightly during the pandemic.

Despite the infrequent rate increases, BPU’s rates impose a hardship on its Kansas City, Kansas, ratepayers, Rivera said, because “we’re already a disenfranchised community.”

“We already are stretching our pennies,” she said. “I’m a pharmacy technician. My customers can’t afford their medicines or rent or BPU or groceries. This is just another … burden on us.”

Rivera said she “was always late” on her BPU bill. When she sought to get her service restored, she had to go to the BPU’s office because she couldn’t reach customer service by phone. After she paid the bill, though, “they’d quickly turn it back on.”

From left to right Faith Rivera at her home in Kansas City, KS. Faith is a community activist and has sought election to the Board of Public Utilities. Kansas Senator David Haley at Parkwood Park in Kansas City, KS. Senator Haley serves district 4 and was elected to the Board of Public Utilities board last year. Anna Shields in her front yard in Kansas City, KS. Shawn House at Mill Creek Park in Kansas City, Missouri. House now lives in Grandview, MO but lived in Kansas City, KS with what she considered to be unfair billing from the KCK Board of Public Utilities.

‘Silly version’ of a cold weather rule

The BPU also restored Jared Emmons’ electricity “relatively quickly” in early January after he discovered two monthly bills and a disconnect notice had ended up in his email spam folder. He contacted the utility and paid the bills.

Emmons is a lawyer who lives in Kansas City, Kansas, and has been a BPU customer for three years. He said in an August interview that he was happy with the BPU’s service overall, except for its cold weather rule. He made a presentation to the board on Jan. 19 advocating for a rule change, which the board unanimously approved Oct. 17.

The BPU’s previous cold and hot weather rule stipulated that from Nov. 1 through March 31, if the National Weather Service forecasts the temperature will remain at or below 32 degrees for 24 hours, then the BPU will not disconnect residential electric service for nonpayment if the customer contacts the utility to confirm eligibility and make a payment arrangement. During that period, the BPU checks the weather forecast daily between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.

The amended rule says that if the temperature is forecast to be at or below 32 degrees at any time in the following 24 hours, the BPU will not disconnect service for nonpayment if the ratepayer makes a payment arrangement.

Emmons called the prior rule “a really silly version of a cold weather rule because it doesn’t really … provide any protection for the customer.” Under that rule, if the temperature were forecast to rise “above freezing for an hour and it’s below freezing for the other 23 hours, BPU can still shut your power off.”

“I am happy with the amended rule,” Emmons said. “Although I would have preferred the rule to match the KCC rule, this amendment addresses the fundamental flaw of the old rule by setting a proper temperature threshold below which disconnects will no longer take place.”

During the summer, when the National Weather Service forecasts the temperature will exceed 95 degrees or the heat index will exceed 105 degrees, the BPU will not disconnect electric service for non-payment if the customer makes a payment arrangement. Water service can be disconnected anytime.

By contrast, the Kansas Corporation Commission’s cold weather rule prohibits utilities from disconnecting customers when the temperature is forecast to fall below 35 degrees anytime in the following 48 hours, with some exceptions. If the temperature is 35 degrees or above, customers in arrears must make payment arrangements with their utility to prevent disconnection.

Kansas State Sen. David Haley, the latest BPU board member, said he had personally run afoul of the previous cold weather rule.

“There are so many questions about the administration and implementation of our monopoly, citizen-owned—quote-unquote,” he said. “Those of us in Wyandotte County who love it and want to remain here can’t help but notice a  bit of inequity and imbalance. … People will get a bill from months or years ago that they don’t know anything about. I still remember the helplessness of not having the KCC policy. (The BPU) cut off my service in 2018.”

Leaving KCK to leave the BPU

Kansas City, Kansas, resident Anna Shields has been a BPU customer for more than 10 years. She moved to Johnson County two years ago but recently returned. Her experience with BPU’s customer service has been mixed but mostly negative.

“Sometimes, they’re OK and they help me go ahead and get together what I need and help me get it settled,” Shields said. “Sometimes they’re just rude. … It’s like, ‘That’s your problem, not my problem.’”

Shields thinks the BPU is overcharging. Her bill might be $200 one month and $400 the next. 

“I look at my meter myself,” she said. “I call and ask to have somebody check it. Once I had a bill of almost 600 dollars. I know there’s no way my bill could be that much. … They did have somebody come out and check the meter. I got no information on whether it was working properly.”

The majority of her friends who lived in Kansas City, Kansas, moved to Kansas City, Missouri, to get away from the BPU, Shields said. Most of her family members who lived in Kansas City, Kansas, moved to Raytown to avoid the BPU. She’s considering moving back to Johnson County because of the problem.

Shawn House had similar experiences with the BPU, which she found “a tad frustrating at times” because “getting a live person on the phone was a bit of a challenge.”

House, who is a member of The Beacon’s community advisory board, moved from Kansas City, Kansas, to Grandview in May. She didn’t move because of the BPU, but she “was happy to get away” from the utility. She lived in an apartment and said her monthly bills seemed large and doubled in the summer and winter.

“Living in an apartment, I personally feel your electric bills should not be more than a person (who lives in) a house.”

Brad Mears, executive director of Kansas Municipal Utilities, said the umbrella group hadn’t received any customer complaints about the BPU.

“From our experience, most municipal utilities are willing to go out of their way to work with their customers to answer questions about a bill or work with the customer on bill payments,” he said. “As a municipal utility customer, those individuals have the opportunity to express their concerns with local officials of the utility, whether elected or appointed, if they believe that some policy or operational issues should be changed.”

Mehlhaff said the utility was always trying to make changes to better serve its customers. But utilities are “low-hanging fruit” for complaints, he said.

“I’ve been here 13 years, and I talk to utilities all around the country and everybody goes through the same thing,” he said. “Most people pay the utility bill and all they care about is, ‘I want reliable power and clean, safe water. And if we go down, I want you guys to get me up as quickly as you can … and I want it at a reasonable cost.’ But people don’t put value in their utilities like they do other services. … And it’s a real challenge.”

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Jerry LaMartina is a freelance reporter for The Beacon. He's worked as a reporter, electronic-media copywriter, editor and website editor for more than 25 years.