Report shows average utility bill in Lawrence is higher than in most U.S. metro areas

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I haven’t written many articles about how Lawrence ranks on this or that lately, mainly because I’ve spent all my ranking energy trying to determine if the 2020 experience rates just above a root canal or just below. (I’m still not sure, but I would like more novocain, please.)

But I will pass along this ranking news because it involves a topic on the mind of many in Lawrence: utility bills. A new report found that Lawrence does have utility costs that are about 10% higher than the national median. And when it comes to small metro areas — communities of 100,000 to 349,999 people — Lawrence ranks in the top 20 for highest utility bill averages.

The report comes from a company called Filterbuy, which sells air filters. That sounds a little dubious as a research company, but a little more digging showed that a third-party company run by data journalists actually put the report together for the company. It uses 2018 information from the U.S. Census Bureau. While I’m sure there are some imperfections in those numbers, it does seem like a pretty decent way to look at how Lawrence’s utility costs compare with other locations across the country.

Here’s a rundown on the information for Lawrence:

• Total median utility costs in Lawrence were $262 per month. That was the 19th highest out of 120 small metro areas in the report. The $262 average compares with a national median of $238 per month.

• Median electric costs were $120 per month, median natural gas costs were $70 per month, median sewer and water was $58 per month, and the median costs for other fuels — think kerosene, wood, propane — was $33 per month. Note: The separate numbers don’t add up to the average of $262 because not every home has electricity and natural gas, and most aren’t heating with wood, for instance.

• Lawrence ranked in the top quartile for two of the three major utility bills. Lawrence was tied for 23rd among the small metro areas for highest water and sewer bill averages. It was tied for 33rd for highest natural gas bill averages. Electric bills, however, were in the lower half of the rankings. The city’s average electric bill was tied for 83rd highest out of 120 small metro areas.

• Looking more broadly, out of the entire 258 metro areas of all sizes that were included in the report, Lawrence had the 44th highest median utility bill.

Comparing utility bills, though, is an imperfect hobby. After all, climate differences can make a huge difference in average utility bills from one location to the next, even if the actual utility rates are pretty similar. When Lawrence is compared with other metros in the area, which are likely to have the same weather challenges, our utility costs fare a little better.

In fact, Lawrence has a lower median monthly utility bill than the Kansas average. The statewide median was $269 per month. That was the 7th highest average utility bill of any state in the country. Connecticut was the highest at $302 per month, while Idaho was the lowest at $189 per month. (They may not have to use the air conditioner a lot in the summer, and in the winter — I’m assuming — they stuff all their pockets with baked potatoes.)

Back to Kansas, Lawrence’s median electric bill came in $30 per month cheaper than the statewide average. However, the Lawrence metro area’s water and sewer bill came in about $12 per month higher than the statewide average. Lawrence is in the middle of a multiyear plan to raise water and sewer rates, as city officials say more revenue is needed to catch up on deferred infrastructure costs. Note: Remember that these are metro averages, meaning places like Baldwin City, Eudora and rural water districts help create the “Lawrence” average for this report.

In terms of other metro areas in the region, Lawrence wasn’t the highest. Our neighbor, the Kansas City, Kan.-Mo. metro area, topped all. It had the 12th highest median bill of any metro area in the country. Here’s a look at regional cities and their overall rankings:

• No. 5: Kansas City: $283 total; $50 water and sewer.

• No. 24: St. Joseph, Mo.: $277 total; $55 water and sewer.

• No. 31: Joplin, Mo.: $270 total; $42 water and sewer.

• No. 44: Lawrence: $262 total; $58 water and sewer.

• No. 46: Topeka: $260 total; $50 water and sewer.

• No. 67: Wichita: $252 total; $42 water and sewer.

• No. 122: Oklahoma City: $235 total; $50 water and sewer.

• No. 124: Columbia, Mo.: $235 total; $31 water and sewer.

• No. 211: Iowa City: $210 total; $50 water and sewer.

• No. 220: Lincoln, Neb.: $203 total; $35 water and sewer.

• No. 237: Denver: $194 total; $55 water and sewer.

Lawrence did fare better than average in one category: Median utility bills as a percentage of total housing costs. Lawrence’s monthly utility costs account for about 21% of average housing costs. That’s better than the national average of 22% and better than Topeka at 29% or Kansas City at 25%, for example.

But that number seems to say more about how expensive your housing is than about how affordable your utility bills are. So, I did my own math to compare median, monthly utility bills to 2018 per capita personal income for each metro area. The percentage shows how much of an individual’s personal monthly income goes toward utilities on average. Note: The percentages are less important here than the actual rank, in my opinion. In other words, I’m not sure the average Lawrence resident spends 7% of his/her income on utilities, because many people share utility costs with other members of a household, as is true in other communities too. But, the differences between the communities, I believe, are still interesting.

• St. Joseph, Mo.: 8.4%

• Joplin, Mo.: 8.1%

• Lawrence: 7.2%

• Topeka: 6.7%

• Kansas City: 6.3%

• Columbia, Mo.: 6.0%

• Wichita: 5.8%

• Oklahoma City: 5.8%

• Lincoln, Neb.: 4.8%

• Iowa City: 4.7%

• Denver: 3.6%


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