Westar asks for rate increase

Power outages
Westar Energy crews work on a power line. (KSN File Photo)

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WICHITA, Kansas – Homeowners and small business owners in Kansas could see higher rates when they get their electric bill. Some are asking why the rates could go up for small business and residential, but down for big business.

“Definitely not in (my) favor, especially when I see that the big corporate (rate) is going down,” says Angelo Rodriguez of “R Coffeehouse” in Riverside. “The ones that consume the most. Everyday is a pinch but definitely not favorable.”

Rodriguez says, if his rates go up, he will just have to find a way to get more business in his shop to make up the money.

Small business owners and residential customers packed a public hearing Monday night in Wichita to hear more about the proposed rate increase from Westar.

Westar rates, on average, would go up about $7.50 a month for residential customers. That’s an increase of about 5 to 10 percent.

Under the rate proposal, big business that buys a lot more juice, would be getting lower rates by about 5 to 15 percent.

“Supposedly this is being done in the name of economic development,” says Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau. “You consider the fact that 60-70 percent of our jobs come from small business…  I don’t really understand how increasing their costs will really help economic development.”

Ranzau plans on writing a letter to the Kansas Corporation Commission. The KCC is the entity that will either okay or nix the rate increase and changes.

Westar officials point to the cost of ice storms, like the massive storm in 2007, as being costly. The company also says it has to make back money lost on big storms to restore power. Company representatives at the meeting Monday also told the crowd, this latest wind storm last week will also be costly.

The company also points to new environmental regulations as being very costly. The LaCygne, Kansas coal power plant is being retrofitted to meet new, tougher environmental regulations.

Some at the Monday meeting say they recognize those storms and environmental regulations can be costly. Still, others wonder why some big electric customers would get a break under the new, proposed rate changes while small business and residential customers would pay more.

Kansas Republican lawmaker Leslie Osterman was at the meeting and was outspoken on the issue.

“Try and attract small business into Kansas,” said Osterman. “Because if you really think about it small business is what really grows your state. I think if you are going to lay a rate increase on the back of these small businesses, how many are going to close if you can’t afford it anymore? How many are going to decide not to come here because the bills are too high and they are not going to make a profit?”

Osterman says he is concerned because the last three years he has worked as a lawmaker to try to bring more small business to Kansas.

The watchdog group CURB, Citizens Utility Ratepayer Board, talked to the audience Monday and is questioning the rate increase and shift proposal.

“Westar is being asked to do a lot of things,” says David Springe with CURB. “But we have also set up a mechanism that encourages Westar to spend money by creating all of these line items that allows them to get (money) it all back. Westar is rewarded by spending money.”

“I think at some point the rate trajectory that we are on is going to make Kansas not competitive with surrounding states,” continues Springe. “That’s bad for customers. That’s bad for business.”

Westar maintains it is asking for the increase to cover costs.

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