Topeka Westar Energy customers on Thursday strongly criticized a proposal by the utility to increase residential rates while reducing electric rates paid by big businesses.
A standing-room-only crowd of more than 80 people packed a hearing room at the Kansas Corporation Commission, with more participating via videoconferences set up in Hutchinson, Salina and Pittsburg.
Westar's proposal would increase rates on average residential customers by $7.50 per month.
It would raise residential bills by 8.8 percent and small businesses by 6.2 percent, while decreasing industrial bills by 8.4 percent and bills that public schools pay by 7.6 percent.
In all, Westar has proposed raising residential rates by a total of $62 million and small business rates by $21.5 million, while decreasing big business rates by $46 million and public school rates by $3.6 million.
Westar says the overall rate increase is needed to pay for environmental upgrades at its coal-burning La Cygne power plant.
The utility said the rates have to be "re-balanced" because big businesses are paying more than the cost of their service, said Jeff Martin, Westar's vice president of regulatory affairs
"That is not good for Kansas jobs or the economy and it's also not very fair," Martin said.
But dozens of speakers disagreed.
Rabbi Moti Rieber, with the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation and director of Kansas Interfaith Power and Light, said increasing the rates on low-income residents was "immoral."
"Why are we having to shoulder such a large proportion of this rate increase?," asked Dennis Pickering of Pittsburg. "We have no way to pass on our expense whereas a business, if their rate goes up, they pass it on."
Westar's Martin said factories' electrical needs are more steady and predictable than those of a typical home.
But Robert King, who retired from Goodyear in Topeka, said at Goodyear, the electrical use varied greatly every day.
Bob Woolin, with AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons), said raising residential rates while reducing big business rates is similar to Gov. Sam Brownback's tax plan that cuts taxes for the wealthy while doing away with deductions that help the poor.
"In our rush to make Kansas appear to be pro-business, we are making Kansas appear anti-resident," Woolin said.
Maren Turner, director of AARP-Kansas, said the increase will force some elderly residents to chose between paying their utility bill and buying food or paying for medicine.
The Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board, which represents residential customers and small businesses, says the proposed increases are out of line.
Since January 2009, Westar has received 18 rate increases, for a total of $469 million, said David Springe, consumer counsel for CURB.
An average summer residential monthly bill was $74 in the summer of 2008. With the proposed increase, that would go to $115, which is 55 percent higher than five years ago, he said.
But Westar's Martin said the utility's pricing still is a bargain. He said Westar's residential customers pay 15 percent below the national average.
The KCC will accept written comments from the public through Sept. 23. Comments regarding the case should reference Docket No.13-WSEE-629-RTS and should be sent to the Kansas Corporation Commission Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Protection, 1500 S.W. Arrowhead Road, Topeka, Kansas 66604-4027. Comments may also be submitted by email to email@example.com.
The KCC has until Dec. 2 to make a decision.