Power lines against a sunset in the background
The Board of Public Utilities provides water and energy to all of Kansas City, Kansas, and some surrounding areas. Most of its energy comes from coal or wind power. (File photo)

The record-breaking heat wave that broiled the Kansas City area in August posed a pricey and foreboding reminder of the vital need for air conditioning — and the expensive energy bills that follow. 

With ever more punishing heat camping over the region and deeper winter cold spells, power bills highlight the pain of steep energy prices. The cost of electricity in the Kansas City area ranks among the highest in the country. On average, residents spend about 5% of their income on electricity — a larger cost burden than in Chicago, Phoenix and 44 other major cities.

In Kansas City, Kansas, electric and water service come from the local government.

The Board of Public Utilities, or BPU, runs electricity service in Kansas City, Kansas, and water service in most of Wyandotte County and parts of Johnson and Leavenworth counties. It’s governed by a board of six elected members who run the publicly owned utility.

This November, half of the board is up for reelection, including two in-district board members and one at-large board member. Ahead of the election, The Beacon will host a virtual BPU forum with an in-person watch party on Sept. 26.

Everyone who gets power and water from the BPU feels the impact of the board’s decisions — on their bills or during blackouts.

Here’s how the BPU works:

At the top of the BPU

In July, the BPU Board of Directors voted to increase electricity rates by 2.5% despite complaints that it would hurt lower-income residents. At a public hearing in June, some residents asked the board to invest in green energy and close the BPU’s aging coal plant.

The six board members represent three districts in Wyandotte County, with half of the board up for reelection every two years. The 2023 ballot includes the District 1 and District 3 in-district positions and the District 3 at-large position.

The board hires and fires the general manager, who oversees the entire BPU staff. The current general manager is Bill Johnson

The chief financial officer, hired by the general manager, prepares a budget every year. The board can modify the budget and the general manager cannot move funds without the approval of the board.

The BPU is an enterprise fund, like Kansas City International Airport, meaning that it generates its own revenue from ratepayers, without any funding from the Unified Government or from property taxes.

In 2023, the BPU budget totaled $389 million. Most of its revenue comes from customer utility bills, and a bulk of its expenses are related to producing and purchasing electricity — around $175 million in 2023. 

Water, on the other hand, is much cheaper to produce and distribute — only $23 million in the 2023 budget.

Checks and balances

The BPU’s board has some limits on its power.

For one, the BPU does not actually own all of the power sources that supply the Kansas City, Kansas, energy grid. 

The Nearman Power Plant, which generates coal power, is owned by the BPU, as is a nearby solar farm. The BPU has the power to make unilateral decisions about those power sources without consulting private investors or property owners.

Coal power constitutes 39% of the BPU’s power generation.

However, the BPU does not own its wind farm. The utility gets about 40% of its electricity from wind. It also takes some power from the Southwest Power Pool, a nonprofit that provides energy to all of Kansas and Oklahoma and parts of Missouri, Texas and several other Midwestern states.

The board also does not have full control over utility rates — particularly payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT. The Unified Government sets those fees to raise money for city services, as an alternative to the franchise fees that private utility companies would otherwise charge customers. 

The PILOT rate of 11.9% is more than double what private utilities typically charge for franchise fees, and that fee can sometimes constitute more than half of a residential utility bill.

In 2023, the BPU will collect $37 million in PILOT fees, making up roughly a fifth of the Unified Government’s general fund.

Whenever the board increases the utility rates for customers, this decision can also be appealed through the district court.

Under the BPU’s charter ordinance adopted in 2001, rate increases must be presented at a public hearing, with documentation justifying the increase. Utility customers can challenge the reasonableness of a rate increase in state court.

Three BPU positions are up for election on Nov. 7

The deadline to register for the 2023 general election is Oct. 17, and the deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 31.

Information about The Beacon’s Sept. 26 candidate forum can be found here.

District 1
Alex Sanchez
Stevie A. Wakes Sr.

District 3
Jeffrey A. Bryant
Brett Parker

District 3 at-large
Rose Mulvany Henry
CeCe Harlin

Incumbents are italicized.

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Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter. After graduating from Seattle University, Josh attended Columbia Journalism School, earning a master’s degree in investigative journalism....