TOPEKA — The Kansas Corporation Commission on Tuesday extended a mandate requiring utilities to offer 12-month payment plans and waive late fees for those struggling to pay their bills.
The commission, which oversees public utilities in the state, issued the original order in May, and it was set to expire at the end of the year. The action ensures that any electric, natural gas and water utility companies under KCC jurisdiction must abide by the order until the pandemic has ended.
“As a commission, this is our responsibility during these unprecedented times to continually review the lay of the land in the state of Kansas and understand what is going on in our communities as it relates to the pandemic and how the population is impacted,” said Susan Duffy, KCC chairwoman. “We’re on the wrong end of this pandemic right now in the state.”
As temperatures drop and the days get shorter, advocates are calling on utility companies to waive fees and cease disconnections. They say the action is one step toward an equitable resolution but that further action is needed promptly.
According to a report filed by commission staff, these protections are working as intended. Except for one utility company, 90% of customers are staying up to date on their payment plans, leading commissioners to approve the extension.
While evidence supports these programs’ efficacy, commissioners say they need further research before considering a suspension of utility shutoffs.
This comes after Evergy, the state’s largest provider, said last week it was reinstituting its moratorium on disconnecting electricity until March 2021.
“I think there’s clearly an argument out there that no level of disconnections is in the public interest during a pandemic, and I would like to hear more about that,” said KCC commissioner Andrew French.
As a result of strong advocacy for such a moratorium, commission staff will file a report and recommendation to the commission detailing if such an action is warranted by Jan. 8.
The report and any subsequent decision cannot come soon enough, said Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Kansas Sierra Club.
“Today’s KCC order should have happened months ago, and it appears we’ll have to wait even longer for possibly more protections,” Pistora said. “Let’s be clear — this is a really dire situation. When utilities shut people’s power off, it only makes the hardship even worse from a health, safety, and economic standpoint.”
Pistora urged the KCC and Gov. Laura Kelly to ensure no Kansan suffers amid COVID-19 at the hands of a utility company because of the inability to make payments on time.
He said protections should be extended beyond just the utilities the KCC regulates to include municipal utilities like the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities.
“Try living without power for a day, a week, let alone months in the cold during the worst health and economic crisis in modern time,” Pistora said. “Some of our Kansas utilities, with KCC’s consent, have collectively disconnected tens of thousands of Kansans since July 15th. We need to right the wrongs and make the utilities turn those Kansans’ power back on right away.”