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Late last month, Toni Dudley's lights went out at her home at 3033 Campfire Drive.
A crew from Westar Energy came out and determined that the underground electrical line from the pole to the meter had become water-saturated and failed.
The crew set up a temporary, above-ground line, but Westar informed Dudley she had 30 days to dig a three-foot-deep trench and bury the new line in a conduit. If she didn't take care of it, they would disconnect the temporary line.
The company left written, detailed instructions on how this was to be done, and that it would require hiring an electrician.
Westar supplies the line, but the customer must pay for the burial and to have the line covered in conduit.
The job will cost Dudley at least $1,500 and possibly more.
"I just don't see this as very consumer-friendly," Dudley said. And, she said, while the expense is a hassle for her family, it would be a major headache for senior citizens or low-income families.
Westar, the largest electric utility in Kansas, used to pay for this kind of job in its northern region, which includes Lawrence, but the company shed that responsibility after changes approved by the Kansas Corporation Commission late last year, according to Gina Penzig, a spokeswoman for Westar.
The changes had been part of an effort to merge different rules and regulations from the separate companies - KG&E and KPL - that now make up Westar.
"It was a business decision," Penzig said, although she said she didn't know how much the company used to spend on burying underground lines.
"Normally we don't see many underground lines failing, but this year we have seen a higher number than usual, maybe because of the rain," Penzig said.
KCC spokeswoman Rosemary Foreman, however, disputes some of Penzig's assertions.
Foreman said in Westar's northern territory, for customers with underground lines, it always has been their responsibility to pay the difference in cost between replacing an underground line and overhead line. The new rules approved by the KCC just made that clearer, she said.
"It was not clearly spelled out that the customer was responsible for the digging and any required conduit," she said.
Foreman said consumers actually made out better through the new rules because now Westar must provide more electrical line than before at no cost. The old rule limited the free replacement line to 60 feet, while the new one expanded that to 135 feet.
Underground vs. overhead
For homes with overhead lines, Westar generally replaces those at no direct cost to the customer.
Dudley says the cost to replace underground lines should be borne by all ratepayers.
But Foreman said that would be unfair to customers with overhead lines.
"It gets back to equity issues. Why should all ratepayers pay all those additional costs (for an underground line)? We try to establish the rules and regs so that they are equitable as much as possible," she said.
But Dudley wondered what Westar is doing with charges included in her monthly bill called transmission charges and customer charges.
Penzig said transmission charges are levied to cover costs when Westar has to transmit power on another company's lines. The customer charge is used to improve service.
Penzig said she hasn't received any other complaints about the underground line replacements costs, and that Westar is more than happy to try to make accommodations for people who have trouble paying the costs.
For her part, once the job is finished, Dudley said she will have a party to put the issue behind her.
"We will do the Electric Slide, have readings from the "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," and music by the Electric Light Orchestra," she said.
And, she said, she plans to invite executives from Westar.