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Archive for Wednesday, June 6, 2001

Electric alliance loses power

Topeka changes stance, may endorse $70 million rate increase for Western

June 6, 2001

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Lawrence and Douglas County officials were angered Tuesday by news that Topeka is negotiating a deal with Western Resources Inc. to endorse an electric rate increase.

After all, the city in February gave Topeka $17,500 for a legal fight against a rate increase. The county kicked in another $5,000. And Lawrence-area officials never heard about any changes of heart by Topeka officials.

"They haven't talked to us," said City Manager Mike Wildgen.

Western Resources, which supplies electricity to most Kansas homes, is asking the Kansas Corporation Commission to approve a $151 million increase in electric rates $93 million of that charged to KPL customers in Lawrence and the rest of northern and eastern Kansas.

Topeka had been leading a coalition of 14 municipal governments, including Lawrence and Douglas County, opposed to what would amount to a 19.6 percent rate increase for customers of KPL. Those governments gave Topeka $136,125 for the battle.

On Monday, though, Topeka Mayor Butch Felker confirmed in an interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal that he has had talks with Western to endorse a still-sizable $70 million rate increase. Details of the possible deal were sketchy. Felker did not return calls Tuesday to the Journal-World.

Unhappy coalition

Lawrence and Douglas County officials were irritated.

"We all contributed (money) to that, and if there's negotiations going on, we should be consulted," said County Administrator Craig Weinaug. "And we weren't."

Mayor Mike Rundle agreed.

"It is frustrating, it's inappropriate and it doesn't reflect the most positive leadership, or courtesy," he said.

Wildgen said he expected to be consulted on the matter, but noted the fight against the rate increase started under Felker's predecessor, Joan Wagnon. Felker took office in April.

"It's a new mayor, so I don't know that the same loyalties are over there," Wildgen said.

Other communities and groups were dismayed, too.

Walker Hendrix, general counsel for the Citizen's Utility Ratepayers Board, said he was surprised by Felker's decision and its timing at the end of the rate hearing before the Kansas Corporation Commission.

"All the interested parties have recommended rate decreases. Now the mayor has chosen to capitulate," Hendrix said.

Also, Hendrix said that the Topeka mayor's actions "was fairly inconsistent with the testimony that was provided by the city of Topeka."

In that testimony, Topeka officials, like those of many cities served by KPL, including Lawrence, stated that a rate increase could prompt either cuts in city services or increases in taxes.

'Preliminary' talks

Topeka City Administrator John Arnold said the "negotiations" were actually closer to being a preliminary contemplation of a settlement.

"Any negotiation would have to include the other cities in the coalition," Arnold said.

John Frieden, the attorney representing the coalition against the increase, said he planned to lay out potential options to all the communities, probably near the end of the week.

"I haven't talked with Mayor Felker about this, but unless we have unanimous consent from all the members of the coalition, it's unlikely we would move forward," Frieden said.

Monday, the KCC finished hearing 12 days of testimony regarding the proposed rate increase. Briefs are due before the commission on June 22; a decision is expected by July 25.

"Two parties can, at this juncture, file any sort of agreement they want with the commission," said KCC spokeswoman Rosemary Foreman. "I would not imagine it would impact the process that we're in."

Officials said Topeka's lone endorsement of a deal might not be enough to persuade the KCC to approve an increase.

"From that perspective, it may be irrelevant what Topeka says," Wildgen said.

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