The BPU's main office in Kansas City, Kansas. The front windows say "Board of Public Utilities."
Three out of six seats on the Board of Public Utilities board are up for election on Nov. 7. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

The Board of Public Utilities has been under fire for years over steep fees added to bills, rolling brownouts during severe weather and accusations of corruption. In the Nov. 7 BPU election, voters will elect half of the board.

The six-member board makes decisions about utility rates and how to keep the service reliable and efficient. The 2023 ballot will include two candidates each in District 1 and District 3 and two in District 3 at large. The district map can be found here.

The Beacon hosted a candidate forum on Sept. 26, where five out of six candidates made their case to voters.

The forum can be watched in its entirety here, and portions have been transcribed below. The candidates’ answers were edited for length and clarity.

Watch the forum

YouTube video

Meet the candidates

District 1

In District 1, the candidates are Stevie Wakes Sr. and Alex Sanchez. Sanchez did not attend the forum. During the forum, Wakes emphasized the need for collaboration between the BPU and the county’s Unified Government to remove the PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) fee from BPU bills.

This district includes the northeastern corner of Wyandotte County.

Stevie Wakes Sr.

Key excerpt from opening statement: “There are some concerns that many of us share: the lack of communication between the BPU and the Unified Government … I’d like to see us be more efficient and not waste … Also, I’d like to see the PILOT removed from our bills.”

District 3

In District 3, incumbent Jeff Bryant is defending his seat against challenger Brett Parker. During the forum, Bryant stressed his financial background and pointed to his voting record on issues like renewable energy and his opposition to the PILOT fee. Parker, a former state legislator, said he would prioritize seeking federal and state grants to bring financial relief for ratepayers.

This district covers the southeastern portion of Wyandotte County.

Jeff Bryant

Key excerpt from opening statement: “As your board member, I’ve been able to help guide important changes in our utility. We stopped the release of pollutants from our coal plant, substantially increased our renewable energies, and improved the reliability of our systems. But I want more for us.”

Brett Parker

Key excerpt from opening statement: “I was highly focused on cost of living issues (in legislature) … I want to bring those same values to the board and really fight to keep rates as low as possible, and be an advocate for you as a ratepayer.”

District 3 at large

In District 3 at large, CeCe Harlin is challenging incumbent Rose Mulvany Henry. Harlin focused on utility bills during the forum and criticized the BPU for a lack of transparency and alluded to problems with corruption and nepotism. Mulvany Henry said she voted to provide relief related to PILOT and rate increases during her first term, and she wants to focus her next term on improving customer service.

CeCe Harlin

Key excerpt from opening statement: “I’m running because I feel like we don’t have the representation on the board that actually represents the people who have to struggle to pay their bills at some point in time.”

Rose Mulvany Henry

Key excerpt from opening statement: “I suggested and voted in favor of reallocating $250,000 in utility assistance funds to our residents since the 2023 budget cycle.”

Candidate responses to questions

At the forum, the panelists and attendees asked candidates in the BPU election eight questions. Click on a link to jump to a specific question.

Question: Coal power constitutes 39% of the BPU’s power generation, much of it produced at the Nearman coal plant. Given the impact on air quality and climate change, what role do you see for coal power in the near-term and long-term future?

Mulvany Henry (District 3 at large): If I’m not mistaken, the Nearman plant has a retirement date. It’s not anywhere near, but it has a retirement date … The utility has been pretty darn good in looking at renewable energy sources and actually utilizing renewable energy sources. They are higher than what is required in the state of Kansas, they are higher than what is required at the federal level. … (The BPU relies on renewable sources for 48% of its energy.) Unless and until we can have the storage that we need for some of the renewable power sources that we can actually utilize, we just can’t turn off the coal plant today. …That coal plant’s going to be in place until we get those things in place on a national scale, but also on a local scale as well.

Harlin (District 3 at large): So I hear BPU staff and the board saying that they are phasing out the coal plant and supposedly they buy and produce a lot of their energy through wind or whatever. But I say that BPU should invest into the people who invested in them and get solar panels for residents because it also produces energy back out for use and things like that. For the people who struggle to pay their light bills, that would also take some of the usage from the coal plant, if you have solar panels and you’re producing a lot of your own energy. Just an idea.

Wakes (District 1): I agree wholeheartedly with Rose Mulvany Henry. I’d like to see the retirement of the Nearman plant, but it cannot happen now. There must be a path forward. And I think it’s going to be very important that we have a general manager in place that will ascertain that we are looking to move in that direction. We cannot remain where we are because where we are is not satisfactory to what is necessary for our community, particularly those of us who live near those toxic things that emanate from the plant. …Because we know that it’s going to have to happen in the future, we should start moving in that direction as soon as possible.

Bryant (District 3): Since first being elected, I’ve supported every renewable energy proposal brought forth by staff. This has allowed us to grow our sustainable energies from around 17% to nearly 50% of our total portfolio. Where coal long held the top spot as an energy source for the BPU, that has now changed to wind, which represents 41% of the BPU’s energy sources. We can see the retirement of the Nearman coal plant on the horizon. It’s imperative that the BPU continues to ensure that we have an affordable and reliable baseload of energy to power our homes and businesses. Our Nearman resource is so important to the everyday life of Kansas City, Kansas, residents that I supported the addition of EPA-approved quality systems that capture the emissions that used to escape from the plant. … It’s important that we weigh the costs associated with each option. With the cost of transmission continuing to rise, it’s important to create new production within our city limits. This will also keep those jobs held by people paying taxes into our city.

Parker (District 3): I echo a lot of the comments that have been said so far. We’re at this unique time where the cost of renewables is coming down … and (storage) is really going to be a key factor moving forward — how are we able to store that energy so that we don’t suffer power outages at peak usage? So we have to have a really keen eye on that. I think there’s also one really key thing to focus on in finding a responsible and hopefully as soon as cost-effective retirement date for that plant, is to be able to plan around the people who work there, the staff who are members of our community — we want them to be able to have a timeline that they can see. We want to have the opportunity for training folks up for other roles within the utility if possible. What we don’t want to do is delay a decision and a plan until it’s too late, where we have to make a more rapid decision than we would like just because we’re losing money on outdated technology. … What we need now is a responsible retirement date, as soon as it is feasible, but certainly not irresponsibly so.

Question: One of the burning issues that I hear all the time is the PILOT — the payment in lieu of taxes — and are there any efforts to eliminate the PILOT without further increasing utility rates for the citizens of Wyandotte County?

Wakes (District 1): The large part of my candidacy has been to remove the PILOT from the bill. As you know, it is not a BPU decision to do that. It takes the community to really tell their (Unified Government) they don’t want it. The commissioners are the ones that voted to put it on the BPU bill. All the BPU does is collect those taxes. … There is no current BPU board member right now that wants the PILOT on your bill. But the Unified Government put this in action years ago. And now we say, take it off, remove it. So it’s very important that we talk to our Unified Government commissioners to make sure that they move to remove the PILOT from our bills. All I hear is the desire to see it happen. But they’re wondering how they’re going to get those funds, that they’ve been receiving those million dollars of funds that they received through the PILOT. And so it is not our concern. But I do know that people have had their utilities cut off for not being able to pay their PILOT bill in addition to their utility bills. So it’s very important that it be removed for the sake of every community member. 

Bryant (District 3): It’s an alternate tax that should not be on our utility bills. It isn’t unique to our city, as many others use a similar system to gather additional revenue. What is different is the amount that we are charged. In most cities, the amount is around 5%. But we have been stuck at 12% for far too long. I am in full support of reducing the PILOT fee and removing it from the BPU bills. No one in our city should have their utilities disconnected because of failure to pay one of the city’s various charges.

Parker (District 3): I imagine this is going to be one of the answers you get the most consensus on for the entire night. I agree with everything that Stevie and Jeff said, this is not a BPU decision. I know it’s a point of frustration for many, many folks. Stevie did a great job of highlighting the need for collaboration with the Unified Government and advocacy to the folks who are able to make that decision. So I would certainly be an advocate for removing it from the bill and work to collaborate with the Unified Government on that, as well.

Harlin (District 3 at large): So, the PILOT fee was voted on to the bill by the people. However, it came with a shutoff clause that was supposed to be, I think, 10 years at the longest. Now, what happened was at the Unified Government meeting this year, I heard the attorney for the Unified Government say that the charter had been long outdated, but they just keep changing the verbiage and keep charging the people. But… until the people get up and demand that they remove the PILOT from the bill, they’re not going to do so. But they also have to get up and ask BPU to remove the $44 and some change, that they call a (customer) fee, off of their BPU bill. … There’s a whole lot of junk fees on there, including the PILOT fee. Everybody has become obsessed with the PILOT fee, but there is about $100 worth of fees, including the PILOT fee, that comes on this bill before they even print your usage charges.

Mulvany Henry (District 3 at large): I have been fortunate enough to sit on a PILOT reduction task force that was put together by the mayor … And we sought, and we now have at least achieved through the standing committee at the UG, PILOT relief. So a PILOT exemption for some seniors in our community that are 65 or older, that have an income level of $37,750 or less, and or are disabled. And if … it is approved by the full commission, which I do expect that it will be, we’ve got some relief for some seniors. It’s not enough. The PILOT task force has not finished yet. An ordinance has been passed to separate the percentages that can be collected. So residential customers can have a lesser PILOT fee than other classes of customers. All not enough. I agree with what the other panelists said though, we’ve got to separate these charges off of the BPU bill one way or another because folks are trying to manage their payments on a sometimes weekly basis. We’re going to cut off your lights because you couldn’t pay your trash or your PILOT — it doesn’t make sense.

Question: This question is from our Zoom. It says: BPU has consistently had a bad reputation for years. Complaints span from terrible customer service, poor transparency, expensive monthly bills, corrupt behavior and unethical business practices. What will those of you running for that position do to address these issues?

Bryant (District 3): When I was first elected, my focus was on rebuilding the financial strength of the utility. Once I felt that that had been stabilized, I turned my focus to improving the infrastructure in the 3rd District. During my time on the board, I’ve helped secure over $75 million in system improvements in my district, and there’s more to come. I feel it is time to put more focus now on improving the customer service that the utility provides to the residents of our community. My belief is unparalleled personal service should be the goal for our utility, and I won’t settle for anything less.

Parker (District 3): We are a public utility. We exist to serve the ratepayers, we exist to serve the community, and customer service should be at the top of our priorities … I was a Democrat in the Kansas Legislature. When you serve in the superminority, one of the biggest impacts you can have for your constituents is constituent service. It is running down the answer to every question they have. It’s connecting them with the people who can answer them, it’s being an advocate for them at all times. I’d certainly support any efforts to improve customer service as board policy. Absolutely. But on top of that, as a board member, I want voters to know that I would be someone who would be an advocate for them and someone they can reach out directly to if they hit walls in the other efforts to get their problem solved.

Harlin (District 3 at large): Anybody who knows me already knows that I usually put everything in the public because I feel like anything that takes place at our BPU or at the Unified Government should be a public issue or not a private issue. They have way too many secrets going on with our BPU and with our Unified Government that I feel like the people are privy to. The first thing I would advocate is for BPU to have their meetings publicized on UG TV. All the rest of the (Unified Government) meetings are publicized on UG TV. And I feel like BPU should be up there as well, because everybody cannot make it to the meetings.

Mulvany Henry (District 3 at large): BPU has a transparency problem. And as I’ve sat on this board for over three years, I can attest to the fact that BPU has a transparency problem. … And I don’t disagree that BPU’s reputation is not good in this community. And that’s unfortunate, because this is a very valuable asset for our community to have, and we should treat it as such, but we should treat our customers the same way. Unparalleled customer service is exactly what every customer service industry company should seek. BPU is far from that. … I’ve been here over three years, I’ve seen some incremental improvements. I hope that we see further improvements in the customer service realm. It’s not good enough.

Wakes (District 1): I’ve been in the community and I plan to remain in the community. Thank you, Brett Parker, for sharing ideas that I concur with. It’s very important that (the BPU have) communication and collaboration with the Unified Government — if the citizens own the utility, then the Unified Government should definitely be making sure there’s oversight, not necessarily trying to micromanage, but every commissioner should be able to answer every question that BPU has … The policies that they have in place now, including the reconnect fees and deposits, those fees have been deemed as discriminatory. And we need to really review those things. 

Question: The BPU has been sued by five different employees in the past two years over alleged racial discrimination and a hostile workplace. Do you think that the BPU has a racism problem, and is there anything that you would do to improve the workplace culture?

Parker (District 3): I can’t speak to the particulars of that, but I will just say in my day job, my job is to help staff organize for better workplace cultures and to organize for themselves. And so as a board member, whether it’s racial discrimination, whether it is safe working conditions, or any other mistreatment of workers, I would be a board member who is constantly looking out for the great people that we employ in our city who are doing this critical work for our citizens. … It doesn’t mean that we always agree, but just like on the customer service side, I want to be a board member who employees can reach out to with any issues and get direct answers from. Certainly, racial discrimination has no place within the BPU workplace. So if any issues were raised to me, I would take them seriously and make sure that they were addressed.

Bryant (District 3): Discrimination of any type is unacceptable. Kansas City, Kansas, in my opinion, is the melting pot of the Midwest. We need to embrace our differences, and realize that that’s what makes our city so unique. And only by understanding each other are we going to move the city forward in the future.

Harlin (District 3 at large): Well, considering that the general manager Bill Johnson (was sued in federal court) for wrongful termination of a veteran who had to go off on duty, and this happened in (2009). It is an open case, y’all can Google this — Snyder versus the Unified Government and BPU. I will say that this practice of illegal firing and things like that, whether it’s about race or whatever it is, it has definitely already been an issue with BPU for wrongfully firing veterans. So I don’t think it would go so far to say that they would discriminate against whoever, for whatever reason. And yes, I do think there needs to be something done since there’s an issue with the general manager. It starts at the top there. If he’s already been (accused of) doing things, I think you need to consider getting rid of the general manager or changing some practices that he has.

Mulvany Henry (District 3 at large): I think it will surprise folks that we have to allow the legal process to take its course, with respect to all of these actions. My personal opinion is that BPU has certainly had employment practice challenges. And I personally would welcome an outside third party to perhaps review those. And I’m not sure that that will necessarily be accomplished with respect to any of the pending litigation.

Wakes (District 1): I concur with much of what’s been said, particularly by those who say that this is not something that we as a board could in our power tolerate. We have to definitely speak out against any type of discrimination, whether it shows itself with BPU, or within any entity of which we are part. With our hiring, firing a man or any practice that we oversee as board members, I think it’s going to be very important that during our orientation, if we’re elected, that we make sure that we review the charter ordinance that we have with the Unified Government, the city, make sure that we review those policies, that ordinance to find out what we have the power to do and what we don’t have the power to do. But as members of the board, we can certainly make sure that it doesn’t happen as far as our power is concerned.

Question: What protections are in place or might you put in place for BPU customers so that we will not have our electricity turned off or slowed down due to impacts of other utility companies, like the lack of due diligence that occurred in February 2021?

Harlin (District 3 at large): I’m not sure what protections I would put in place for that. But I just know that nobody’s lights or utilities should be cut off, especially when they own the utility. I’m sorry, but if this public owns the utility, then BPU should not be able to cut off the owners like that. There should be some other type of remedy in place for you to collect money for this utility … I would definitely advocate that they come up with a different remedy as to collect funds from the people who own the utility.

Mulvany Henry (District 3 at large): If we’re talking about February 2021 specifically, that was the extreme cold snap. BPU territory actually, I believe, went through rolling brownouts. I don’t know that we blacked out any customer — don’t hold me to that because we may have — but we’re part of the power grid. We’re connected to Southwest Power Pool. Every power company in a multiple-state region belongs to that. What happened at that period of time in Kansas City, and I will give a shoutout to the coal plant, because if we didn’t have Nearman, at that time, Kansas City, Kansas, would have been dark, period. … As part of the power grid, we could have been Texas. They’re not part of a power grid, they’re interconnected in their own state. And we all saw what happened there. And that was exponentially worse than what happened here in KCK. So being part of an interconnected grid — some of this is about managing the power load. There wasn’t anything different at that time that BPU could have done better, but I can assure you, lessons were learned. And that’s not going to be the last time that happens, unfortunately. 

Wakes (District 1): I concur with Rose. I don’t think we could have done anything better. But I think moving forward, because of the lessons that we learned, we can probably put in place some safeguards, particularly when we’re looking at power grids in the future. But right now, I don’t know of anything better we can do. 

Bryant (District 3): So what happened in that February is a prime example of why it’s so important that we have baseload generation within our city limits. That helps us prevent being dependent on power being brought in from outside sources at a higher cost and unpredictable cost. The other thing … is getting the UG to remove their charges from the BPU bill and bill separately, so that … people are only responsible for their electricity and their water, and they’re not getting shut off because they weren’t able to afford their trash payment.

Parker (District 3): What happened in February 2021 is an example of the increasing extreme weather patterns we’re facing, some of the climate challenges, and Rose was spot on. If we hadn’t been able to generate our own power during that time, we would have been in a much worse spot. The flip side of that is we are also part of a whole system that is made worse by continuing to burn fossil fuels. … We need to make sure that we’re doing right by our residents and our ratepayers as far as making sure that they’re not seeing price spikes during those extreme times. We’re going to see hotter summers. We’re going to see more intense storms. And I certainly think the BPU did a solid job in a tough time then. But the lesson moving forward is how do we be prepared not just for similar incidents like that, but all of the other challenges that come from a more extreme climate and … making sure that the BPU is climate resilient.

Question: We’ve heard a lot of aging residents say that they have trouble with rising housing costs and limited income. How do you propose to get assistance, especially to our aging population who may be considering moving out of Wyandotte County just to lower utility costs?

Mulvany Henry (District 3 at large): We just went through a rate hearing in June. And in July, the board voted to increase both water and electric rates. … I voted against the rate increase, in large part because our residents are hurting. I know this. We see it every single board meeting, I see it with every constituent that calls me with a problem. And, the thing we did immediately after the rate increase, and I applaud the board for this, is we put in a mechanism to assist some of our most vulnerable population and our seniors … to actually give them a rebate, at least a partial rebate of the increases that are coming for their electric and water. Which is great. It’s not enough. … One of the things that I scratch my head on every day is why we don’t have universal service for our utility costs, for electricity and water. We’ve thrown billions of dollars at broadband, also another essential service in homes, where folks who qualify for it get a stipend. The fact that we haven’t done that in the utility sector doesn’t make any sense to me. And I believe that BPU, we go up to speak and lobby about things all the time. One of the things we ought to be doing is at least lobbying the state of Kansas to put a universal service fund. That will go a long way in helping our residents who cannot meet their payments today. I’d love for us to take the alternative approach, and that is, “OK, we can’t raise rates higher than whatever X percent of folks’ income.”

Harlin (District 3 at large): You should be rewarded for less usage. However, I’m going to reiterate the solar panel thing. If we have citizens that are having a hard time paying their bills, BPU says that they give money to United Way and other places that help and assist their customers or owners with their BPU bill, and we don’t know this to be true, we can only go off their word. But if you were putting solar panels on the elderly’s houses and stuff, that would be something tangible that we could actually see. And we also know that that is a system with their bill because it also creates energy that BPU can then use and do whatever they want to do with it. But I’m in favor of anything that brings down our bill, including these salaries — seven people getting $476,000 in raises in one year, like things like that. And then you expect us to believe that you want to raise our rates for infrastructure when the PILOT fee is set up for things like that. And BPU has resources like attorneys that can take it to the Unified Government and say, “Hey, you’re charging the people a PILOT fee. If you want money for infrastructure, make the UG pay for that because they’re collecting money for that.”

Wakes (District 1): I believe that, as Rose stated eloquently, that people are hurting in Wyandotte County as a result of what it costs to live in Wyandotte County — dealing with taxes as well as the rising rates of our utility bills. That’s why I strongly advocate for the removal of the PILOT from our utility bills, and strongly advocate for improved efficiencies with the Unified Government. That’s one way that I see that we can be more efficient, one way that we can save consumers money, particularly on their bills. And, again, we need to review the reconnect fees and deposits, those particular policies. 

Bryant (District 3): Rose has already spoken about the low-income senior rebate program that we instituted immediately after the rate increase, which will give back a rebate for the rate increase for those that fall in that category. Our rate increase was the first one we had in six years. And we were able to hold off longer than other utilities because we controlled our costs even during the recent volatile financial period that we’ve all been facing. Unfortunately, during the past few years, the Unified Government has applied a string of increases to the fees that they include on our utility bills. This has given customers the appearance that the utility has been raising its rates, even though they’ve remained the same for six years. I will continue to advocate for the UG to remove their charges from the BPU bill to create better transparency for all of our ratepayers.

Parker (District 3): It’s a good thing I was muted, or else everyone would have heard me frantically circling on my notes when Rose mentioned federal and state aid because I think that is a huge piece right now. We’re at a unique opportunity where there are funds available, and we need to do everything in our power to go after every single one that we can for our community. I think Rose also mentioned lobbying Topeka. My experience in public service before was as a state legislator. That is a comfortable experience for me. I am happy to spend time talking with folks in Topeka about how they can do better by Wyandotte County and BPU ratepayers specifically. I think there’s also another issue here, which is how big of a burden are our lowest-income folks carrying when it comes to paying rates. I’ve had some conversations with one of our neighboring utilities, WaterOne and some of their board members, and they have a graduated rate structure where the folks who use the least water pay the lowest rate. That would be a tremendous help for residents in our community, if we could lift some of that burden rather than giving a break to the biggest users. …I think that’s a structure we could look at both on the water and the electrical side to ease some of that burden.

Question: What significant improvement efforts, aside from what we hope will pass for the seniors, is BPU doing to ensure customers can afford services? Are there any other programs that are in the pipeline?

Wakes (District 1): Now, let’s be clear about the rates. The electric and water rates are determined by the Board of Public Utilities. We approve or disapprove that by vote. But the PILOT has nothing to do with the Board of Public Utilities. … It’s very important that we hold the Unified Government accountable for those charges. But  … the BPU has not raised those (electric and water) rates in six years. However, did they need to do it now, according to them, according to our general manager, he said that was important. I’m not sure, that’s according to his justification. Now, if you look at what he stated in his justification, it was that it had a lot to do with the credit rating, in order for them to be able to borrow the money to make sure that our infrastructure stayed in place. So listen very carefully to those two different charges. You have UG charges on your bill, and you have the PILOT, which is a UG charge, as well as the usage, the other fees that you have associated with your BPU bill. And they have separated that now on your bill. So you can determine what those two charges are. 

Bryant (District 3): The BPU has been shouldered with collecting fees for the UG. One of the most eye-opening statistics that I learned about our city is that the jobs in Kansas City, Kansas, are some of the highest paid in the state of Kansas. At the same time, our average income per household is one of the lowest in the state. This tells me that too many of those good-paying jobs are held by people living outside of our city, the utility rates of the BPU fall in the middle of all the utilities in our state. The difference in our bill comes from those additional UG charges, which I adamantly believe need to be removed from our utility bills. Too many residents struggle to pay these extra fees that have nothing to do with their water and electricity. No one should be subject to being shut off because of not paying their trash or the PILOT or their stormwater fees.

Parker (District 3): I’m going to be a broken record about this, but every federal and state aid dollar that we don’t collect is a dollar that we have to collect in people’s rates. … We need to (seek grant funding) energetically, and we need to do it as if folks’ ability to pay their bills depends on it because it does. Our rate structure could be improved so that it lessens the burden on some of our lower-income folks and our fixed-income folks. Beyond that, transparency was brought up, and I think that as board members we need to be respectful of our staff, we need to have the best staff, but ultimately, the buck stops with the board.  …  And if there are innovative ideas that aren’t being considered by staff, it’s on us to find them and to bring them up. … We have to take that responsibility seriously. 

Harlin (District 3 at  large): Let me correct something that was said earlier: not just the rates were raised, the access electrical charge was raised from $22 to $24. So I want to say this, I had a community member bring me 18 months worth of her BPU bills. And for September 1, 2022, her bill was $99 and some change. The next bill, which was this year on September 1, 2023 or around that time, her next bill was $305. And all of those were not UG issues or anything, her usage had not gone up. I know how to scrutinize a bill, and I had no answers for her. … Your bill is never consistent. I’ve never had a consistent BPU bill … An audit should be done to ensure that all residents are paying the same rate charges, the same fees, the same everything, because I’ve had issues with different areas of Wyandotte County paying less than other areas of Wyandotte County.

Mulvany Henry (District 3 at large): The question was whether or not there are any significant improvements coming down the pipe that we’re aware of. We talked about two of them tonight — one of them is the BPU utility rebate program … and then, of course, the PILOT relief through the PILOT task force. In addition to that, a subcommittee of the BPU board is going to take up the customer service policies in the coming weeks.  … Connection fees were brought up tonight, reconnection fees, disconnection fees, nobody brought up late payment charges, but I’ll go ahead and throw that in there along with deposits and how those are applied. I mean, all of these charges in and of themselves, it’s in the millions of dollars. And the question is, can BPU survive without some of those fees? A lot of folks call them regressive. I agree, they are regressive. They wind up disproportionately hurting our customers who are most vulnerable.

Question: Should the BPU help customers pay for energy efficiency upgrades that could bring down their energy bills? For example, subsidizing insulation upgrades, reimbursing costs for smart thermostats, LED light bulbs. Are there any ideas that you have about improving energy efficiency for customers?

Bryant (District 3): The utility has had multiple programs in the past for this, and I’m sure that they’ll come again. There have been grants that we have gone out and secured and used for our customers. We had the heat pump rebate program. For a while we had a very nice rebate program that was used for home improvements, and it was a no-interest loan that people could go out, and they could do improvements on their houses, and it would just be paid back through their utility bill. And unfortunately, the state was still overseeing that, and then they came in part of the way through the program and took the rest of the funds away from us. … Our staff has been very good, our economic development group, they’ll go to events like Turner Days and places like that, and they hand out LED light bulbs to help people, they’ll give classes on how small changes can help improve your home so that you do lower your bills. There’s a lot of things on the BPU website, a lot of videos that teach about home efficiency and how you can improve your efficiency. So, there are a lot of programs out there that we work on, and we will continue whenever the funds are available, so that we’re not just driving up more costs onto our existing customers.

Parker (District 3): I think this is a great thing to invest in, with the caveat that it shouldn’t come at the expense of your neighbors paying higher rates to do so. And again, to be a broken record, this is a tremendous area we could focus federal and state aid on. It’s an opportunity to lower overall energy needs to bring down what peak usage will be, it’s a way to build resilience, again, as we look forward to the future of more extreme weather patterns and having to be prepared for those times. So again, I come back to that we need to aggressively energetically chase down every aid dollar that we possibly can. 

Harlin (District 3 at large): BPU has an obligation to invest into the community that invests into them.  … So absolutely, I feel like BPU should do a whole lot more for them. They call them “ratepayers” but I call them “owners” because that’s what they are. But they should do a lot more for the people who own and invest into our company.  … Especially the ones who are most vulnerable, as we call them, our elderly people and stuff like that, they can hardly pay their month-to-month bill, let alone can they try to make these updates to their homes and things like that. So yes, absolutely, I think a program should be put in place where they collect money to help the elderly and other at-risk people, disabled people.

Mulvany Henry (District 3 at large): BPU actually facilitates weatherization programs through the East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corporation. So it’s ECKAN, which works over I believe 13 counties in Kansas, Wyandotte is one of them, to assist low-income vulnerable folks with weatherization of their homes. Do I think BPU should do that? I agree with Brett that, again, I can’t hammer it enough — we have to aggressively seek and secure state federal funding. We are in an unprecedented time to bring dollars like that into KCK, into Wyandotte County. And, the utility has been successful in the past at receiving grant dollars, receiving low-interest loans, things like that, to assist with infrastructure needs. …I’d love to see us actually secure an outside consultant that this is what they do, is go find and get grant money.

Wakes (District 1): I agree wholeheartedly with Brett and Rose, regarding seeking after those dollars. And as was stated also by Jeff, on the website, they do have information. And Rose stated about the program that is available for those who are needing those types of services, an audit of homes — particularly those who have difficulty paying their bills — an audit of their energy usage. But I still say that not only those who are vulnerable, but I always equate the scenario of a parent and their children. Parents, their kids don’t pay the bills, so they are kind of careless with their water and electricity usage. Such as I believe is the same with the Unified Government. I don’t think we are as efficient as we could be with our water and electric usage. And I think we should also be audited as far as our use, because that’s what we’re paying for. And the customers are paying for that as well. 

Closing statements

Candidates were given an extra minute in their closing statements to address four additional questions from Zoom and Facebook:

  • Our diverse populations include many people who do not have permission to be here and do not have identification documents. Many immigrants have their documents confiscated by ICE, yet the BPU requires ID with local address. At least that is what we were told when a Venezuelan family with only a national identity card and an expired passport applied for services. They were denied. We were told inconsistent policies by BPU lawyers, the CEO and other employees. But someone told us that they could go to the Mexican consulate for an ID and when we pointed out that they weren’t Mexican, they said that they were out of luck. What would you do to fix problems like this from any of our residents?
  • What are the disadvantages or advantages of privatizing the BPU?
  • Who at the UG is responsible for adding and raising fees via the BPU, what person, what department?
  • Nepotism is high at BPU. What can you do to stop this practice within the company?

Parker (District 3): No one should be, quote, “out of luck” when it comes to having access to water and electricity in our community. This is a public utility. …  We work for the people who own it. And everyone in our community deserves access to water and electricity. We need it, there are folks trying to get connected with perhaps less common backgrounds and credentials, we need to move heaven and earth to find out a way to get them signed up appropriately. There was a question about privatizing. I think we have a tremendous opportunity, as owners of a public utility as potential board members of a public utility, that this should work better for our citizens, for our ratepayers, for our residents, for the owners of this utility, than a privatized entity. But it’s incumbent upon the leadership to make sure that it’s functioning that way. … And lastly, I think the question was, who in BPU was responsible for raising the rates? The board is responsible, ultimately, for setting those rates. We’ve heard from the two incumbents here on how they voted on that. … I will certainly have a focus on trying to keep rates as low as possible, as low as we can responsibly make them and also for making sure that the burden of those rates are not carried the largest by our lowest earners or our fixed-income folks. There are a lot of great policies that were discussed tonight that we could use to alleviate some of those concerns. Again, there is federal and state aid money available, we need to be going after. If you elect me, I will be a tireless advocate for you as a resident and for the BPU.

Bryant (District 3): Rose pointed out earlier that the policy committee, which I sit on also, will be looking at the customer service policies. This will be a great opportunity to look at some of these items that our citizens have brought up about the customer service policies at the BPU and make those changes … I understand a lot of the policies were written many years ago, things have changed drastically over the last decade. And we need to make sure our policies are updated to represent the current times. As far as privatizing. I can tell you as a cost analyst, I do the pricing at a very large manufacturing company. We have three buckets: we have labor, we have materials, we have profit. That is what you will find at Evergy also. But what you find with the BPU: labor and materials. There is no profit because the dollars that are brought in, go back into our community. That is the advantage of having a municipal utility, is that the dollars are invested back into the properties inside of our city limits. And that’s the way it should stay. … My wife and I have invested our entire lives in this city. So failure is not an option. I challenge every one of you to find a way to help move our city forward. We all have a skill that can be used for good. I’ve chosen to use mine to help make our utility better, and to create a brighter future. I ask for your support on Nov. 7, to help me continue to drive change at the BPU.

Mulvany Henry (District 3 at large): I’ll echo the comments of some of the other participants tonight that ultimately, the board is the one who approves or rejects the rates that are proposed by our staff. … Not all fees, but most fees. I’ve told you we are taking up the customer service policy review again in the coming weeks. Please pay attention to that. If you have input, reach out to a board member. … With respect to assisting potential residents who may not be able to get relief from the Mexican consulate. Venezuela is a different situation, certainly, but as I think Jeff just pointed out, we have some policies in place that are pretty outdated. And certainly that policy does not reflect the greater diversity that is in this community … So we have to make sure, A, that we’re all on the same page, and B, that we can go out there and assist these customers, when they come in seeking to sign up for service with BPU. … I have a record that has proven that I stood with the people of this community during my first term. And I intend to do nothing but continue that if I’m elected to a second term.

Harlin (District 3 at large): I’m going to attempt to answer the questions. So the illegal immigrants, I think that any form of identification with your name on there should be sufficient enough for a public utility. As long as you live in Wyandotte County or the city of Kansas City, Kansas, you should be able to get your lights on in your home. The Unified Government Commission is the one responsible for presenting the charter or the vote for the people for the PILOT fee. The people are responsible to go through the Unified Government and say, “Enough is enough, take the PILOT fee off the bill, I don’t care how you do it, you need to get it off,” because the people voted it in and they need to get it off. The nepotism at BPU and the Unified Government, I suggest that people look on the EEOC or equal employment website and look up what remedies you can do to address the nepotism here in Wyandotte County, because there are legal ways for those things to happen. I’ve also looked at that, because I thought that it was outstanding, the amount of people with the same last name working at BPU. … The power lies with the community members not with the board and not with the UG, but it lies with you. The only way that they can continue to make these decisions is because you don’t get up and address them. You have to get up collectively as a community and tell them, “I don’t want this or I do want this,” and until you do, they will continue to do what they want to do.

Wakes (District 1): It’s very important that we continue to make our customer service beneficial for the customers within our city in spite of their nationality, but that we make sure that our customer service policies reflect the diversity of our community. I believe that we need to work on those deposit fees, the policy needs to be reviewed regarding the customer service, shut off fees, all those fees, reconnection fees. I think that’s something that we will need to review and make it beneficial for not only the BPU, but also the customer. … It would cost us much more to try to privatize the public utility, rather than maintain those dollars within our own jurisdiction. As far as my candidacy again, those three things that I mentioned to you about communication, collaboration and accountability with UG and the Board of Public Utilities, that we maintain those meetings that were stopped for a long time, that we continue those so that we maintain that communication, that we improve in efficiencies with our water and electricity with the Unified Government, that we’ll remove that PILOT off of our bills. 

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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....