About 20 years ago, more than 85,000 Wichita utility customers signed a petition against Western Resources, the corporate forerunner of Westar, because of rate disparities. Wichita electricity consumers paid more for electricity than Kansas Power and Light (KPL) consumers in Topeka.
Former Wichita Mayor Bob Knight, led the effort, telling a business newspaper, "You cannot advance as a community until your utilities are in good shape," he says. "This is an issue that's not going away."
The current Westar debacle reveals how foreseeing Knight was. If we don’t wrestle some authority away from Westar right now, it will continue hiking prices and running roughshod over our property rights. This power company has too much power over our lives.
I introduced a bill last session requiring utility companies to follow a permit process governed by the Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC) before placing transmission poles or transformers on homeowner property. House Republican leadership and Westar lobbyists blocked it.
So, despite the fact that Westar has agreed to remove some of those monstrous transmission towers in my district in Wichita, the utility isn’t sorry about what they’ve done. In fact, they plan to do it again -- next time, possibly in your neighborhood.
I did some research.
In the late 1990s, Wichita customers’ rates were roughly 22% higher than rates paid in Topeka and parts of Johnson County. The response from the utility at the time? Take it up with the Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC).
"The KCC is responsible for the rates," said then-Western Resources spokeswoman Kim Gronniger in a newspaper article. Although Wichita rates were higher than Topeka, both were still below the national average, she said.
The KCC recommended that the utility use some of its merger savings to reduce customer rates.
Another article said then-Western Resources President David Wittig was so upset that Wichita customers had the temerity to challenge unfair rates, he threatened in a letter to shareholders that “Western might walk away from” a proposed merger with KCP&L, a scenario that could “mean higher rates for KGE (southern Kansas area) customers."
Wittig also accused Mayor Knight of lying about Western Resources and threatened to leave Wichita and move its headquarters and most of its 800 employees.
Wittig was basically saying, “You’re going to eat these higher utility rates and like it.”
Does this sound like an organization operating in the public interest?
Well, all these years later, this company has placed 105-foot poles in people’s front yards. This company empaneled a “community” committee to look at solutions and excluded Wichita homeowners directly affected by the poles. This company also wants to punish homeowners with fees for installing solar panels on their homes.
Westar wants to “crush home solar to maintain” a monopoly over energy.
Westar can operate this way because they enjoy quasi-government powers such as Eminent Domain – the power to seize your property.
They’re a monopoly and they’ve been acting like it.
But now, after a fight, we have their attention. Let’s make the most of this opportunity and begin paring back the power – literally – that they have over us and too often wield against us. I’m asking everyone to weigh-in and call or write the KCC and ask them to stand up for us!
History should be our guide here. Some 20 years ago, we were in the same spot with Westar. Mayor Knight was right. This problem isn’t going away.
If the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, then it should be more than abundantly clear that our fight is not over.
It’s just beginning.