What one minister learned by helping Kansans avoid utility shutoffs

At the RiverWalk Church of Christ in Wichita, Jay Plank works with clients who need help, mostly with electric bills. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jay Plank is the administrative minister and an elder with the RiverWalk Church of Christ in Wichita. 

A recent Kansas Reflector article, “’Is cruelty just the point?’: Coalition demands end to utility shutoffs,” consisted mostly of quotes and anecdotal stories by customers of utility companies or speakers in a conference call hosted by Build Power MoKan, a self-described “energy justice coalition.” The thrust of the article was to call the utilities to task for shutting off services for nonpayment.

While I commend the Reflector for the article, there are two sides to the story. I work for an independent, small, autonomous downtown church in Wichita. We can set our own parameters for any benevolent help we may provide and can sometimes help clients with utility bills. I am the one clients see when they need help, mostly with electric bills.

Lack of communication, in my view, is a big driver in the disconnection of utility services. When someone asks for help, I call the utility and, after receiving permission from the client for me to discuss their bill with the utility, I ask about past payments, usage, prior customer contact, available options, etc. I often find that the customer has not reached out to the company and that had they done so, they would have had options for maintaining service that are now no longer available.

Utilities will usually try to find a way to help customers if the customer will communicate with them as soon as possible. Depending on the situation, they may give extra time, accept partial payment or offer another option. The important point is that the customer communicates regarding any payment difficulties.

It is not unusual for usage to be very high for the size of the place where the client lives. Sometimes the reason for that is a genuine lack of understanding that the cost of the utility increases substantially if the customer insists on a wintertime indoor temperature of 78 degrees when 68 degrees could be comfortable with another clothing layer.

I’ve also found that some of our clients had landlords who would not make repairs to the property, resulting in broken windows, non-closing doors, leaky plumbing, holes in the walls, ceiling, etc. I have sent out volunteers from our congregation to make repairs more than once.

And not a few clients have told me that they had allowed a neighbor to run an extension cord to their home next door in order to have some kind of power available after their neighbor’s electricity was disconnected.

Make no mistake. There is substantial and genuine need. People are hurting. Contrary to popular opinion, most families do the best they can to make ends meet.  But often they’ve had a medical setback, job loss, or some other unforeseeable event that has put them in a financial pit.

But simply turning the power, gas or water back on and allowing the bills to skyrocket to the point that they will never be paid is not the answer. That only deepens the financial pit that these families are already in, because those bills will follow them forever in the computer systems of the utilities.

This issue needs to be confronted on multiple fronts. While not an expert, I have experience working with clients in need. Can the state’s cold weather rule be modified to help clients who find themselves in a bad position? That may provide some immediate help. Additionally, clients need to be educated on judicious use of utilities in a way they not only understand, but put into practice. Landlords should be held accountable for renting substantially unlivable properties. And clients need to communicate with the utility at the first sign of not being able to pay.

As for running the extension cord to the neighbor’s house, that is, although probably not legal, a practice of good will inherent in the hearts of many who themselves are in need.

We as a church do what we can, as do most non-governmental organizations that work with societal need. There is no quick, easy fix for this. The problem does not lie solely with the utilities, the customer or the government. No one entity is the boogeyman.

It will take a coming together of all parties, listening, learning different perspectives, desiring to effect real change. It will be a slow, deliberate and costly process. But we can do this.

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