Archive for Saturday, September 8, 2001

Businesses urge court to stop relief checks

September 8, 2001


— Business groups have asked the Kansas Court of Appeals to halt an order that allows money from a legal settlement to go to low-income Kansas residents who can't pay their gas bills.

Some large industrial customers claim they are entitled to some of the money, which represents a refund from natural gas producers who overcharged customers by passing on property taxes in the 1970s and 1980s.

In July, the Kansas Corporation Commission ordered $29 million be distributed as relief to poor residents, on top of $8.6 million it already had approved for distribution.

But some businesses including aircraft manufacturers, chemical companies and hospitals have appealed that order. They also want the appeals court to halt the distribution of the money until a final ruling is made.

"There is simply no way to get the money back once it's distributed to low-income customers," attorney Diana Vuylsteke, representing a group called Kansas Industrial Customers, told the appeals court.

She said that holding the money "will result in no harm" to the consumers seeking assistance.

But Paula Lentz, KCC attorney, said thousands of Kansas residents have had their gas service shut off for failing to pay last winter's expensive bills.

"We are going to send people into the winter heating season without gas services," Lentz said.

Lentz said businesses could pass higher costs on to consumers or to go off system to obtain cheaper supplies of natural gas options residential customers don't have.

"If anyone is harmed, it is a person who chose to forgo purchasing medication to pay a gas bill," Lentz said.

But Judge Carol Beier said she wanted to hear legal arguments, not moral ones.

Under the KCC's order, low- and middle-income Kansas Gas Service customers who purchased gas between Nov. 1, 2000, and March 31, 2001, are eligible for a one-time credit of $495. UtiliCorp customers could receive a $325 rebate and Greeley customers can get a $350 rebate.

To date, 22,000 low-income customers of the Kansas Gas Service have qualified.

"The needs are ever growing and people are becoming more frantic about when they're going to get this credit," said Tina Labellarte, chief executive officer of the Kansas Capital Area Chapter of the American Red Cross in Topeka, which is administering the program.

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