Monthly Archives: October 2011

Utilities restricted from disconnecting customers; Cold Weather Rule in effect starting Tuesday

Good news. You don’t have to freeze to death in the dark this winter.

The state’s Cold Weather Rule comes into effect Tuesday, placing tight restrictions on utilities disconnecting service from people who fall behind in their bills.

“It’s a really valuable resource,” said Steve Rarrick, a lawyer for the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, the state agency that represents residential utility customers and fought to create and maintain the rule.

“If they (customers) lose their job or something, they can at least keep their house warm during these cold weather months,” Rarrick said.

The Cold Weather Rule re-quires utilities to set up 12-month payment plans for customers who can’t afford to pay their full bill when the temperature drops and home energy use for heating goes up.

The rule also restricts utilities from initiating disconnection when the low temperature is expected to fall below 35 degrees in a 48-hour period.

And it requires utilities to give the customer 10 days notice of intent to disconnect electric or gas service. The utility must also give a second, final disconnect notification at least 24 hours before cutting service. That notification must be by phone, personal contact or a door note at the affected home.

Customers who can’t pay their winter bills do need to contact their utilities to go on a payment plan, according to Jesse Borjon, spokesman for the Kansas Corporation Commission.

The customer can pay one-twelfth of his or her outstanding balance, with the rest spread out equally over the next 11 months.

Ideally, customers will pay their regular monthly bill plus the deferred amount until they can catch up.

Utilities also can help consumers apply for federal, state and local programs that provide assistance with utility bills.

“Hopefully it keeps people from freezing during the winter months,” Rarrick said. “It also cuts down on people doing things like starting unsafe fires in their house like a little campfire, or using appliances that aren’t approved for use indoors to heat their homes.”

For more information on the Cold Weather Rule, contact your electric or gas company directly, or call the Kansas Corporation Commission consumer affairs office at 800-662-0027.

No federal grant money for Kansas Arts Commission

TOPEKA — The Kansas Arts Commission announced today that it will try to support state arts programs entirely with privately-raised funds after learning that the National Endowment for the Arts won’t match private dollars with federal grant money.

The announcement is the commission’s latest step to support the arts in the wake of Gov. Sam Brownback’s decision to eliminate state funding for the commission, a move that led to the denial of roughly $800,000 in federal grant money from the NEA and about $400,000 from the Mid-American Arts Alliance.

Several arts advocates have expressed doubts about Kansas’ ability to support arts the way it has in the past without state funds, which are often required to receive federal grant money.

The commission now plans to go ahead with special Kansas Arts Supporters license plates as a way to raise money to support art education, festivals and other projects across the state. Commissioners plan to finalize details of that program at their December meeting.

They also agreed to continue the Governor’s Arts Awards program and to explore a partnership with the Kansas Humanities Council to expand the Poet Laureate program.

Conservative Rep. Landwehr to take on moderate Sen. Schodorf in Republican primary battle

Landwehr

Schodorf

Saying she’d do the most to fight the federal health care law, Rep. Brenda Landwehr has officially launched a Republican primary challenge for the Senate seat now held by Sen. Jean Schodorf.

Landwehr, who has served in the House since 1995, will give up nearly guaranteed re-election in 2012 to face Schodorf, a 10-year incumbent who placed second in last year’s Republican primary in the 4th Congressional District.

The race offers a clear-cut contrast.

Landwehr is a leader of the House conservative wing and known for long-term opposition to abortion and more recently, the federal Affordable Care Act.

She is chairwoman of the House Health and Human Services Committee and vice-chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Health Policy Oversight.

Schodorf is identified with the more moderate wing of the Republican Party and is considered one of the Legislature’s leaders on education.

She is Senate majority whip and also serves as chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee and the joint Legislative Educational Planning Committee.

Opposition to President Obama’s health-care reform act — which Republicans derisively call “Obamacare” — was an issue that propelled the GOP to sweeping victories in Kansas and across the nation in 2010.

Landwehr is hoping that issue still galvanizes Republican voters. Read More »

Kansans United in Voice & Spirit to rally near Koch’s headquarters in Wichita

A group that drew more than 200 people to the steps of the Capitol last month to rally against Gov. Sam Brownback’s decisions plans to march near Koch Industry’s headquarters in north Wichita on Oct. 29, the group announced this evening.

Kansans United in Voice & Spirit, a nonpartisan organization based in Lawrence, says it represents the majority of Kansans “who personally live with the consequences of ideologues and outsiders who are well financed in a way that most Kansans are not.’

The announcement otherwise doesn’t say anything specific about Koch Industries. But the company and its founders have become a primary example of a company with powerful political influence and prolific financing of conservative candidates.

Asked by e-mail about its decision to rally at Koch, the group’s founders said people are starting to recognize the corporate influence on the federal, state and local levels “has threatened the intention and spirit of our democracy.”

“Koch Industries represent the epitome of corporate power,” they wrote. Read More »

Kansas ranks 48th in energy efficiency

Kansas find itself in a familiar position when it comes to energy efficiency – trailing the nation and falling farther behind.

Today, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranked Kansas No. 48 in energy efficiency among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Kansas dropped two places from its No. 46 ranking last year.

Kansas’ efforts to spur conservation took a further blow recently when the state decided to defund the Efficiency Kansas loan program — originally a $38.2 million effort using federal stimulus money to make low- and no-interest loans to home and business owners for energy-saving improvements.

Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration has transferred the bulk of the program’s remaining federal stimulus funding, about $20.5 million, to expand efforts to make alternative fuel from grasses, corn waste and cow manure.

Only North Dakota, Wyoming and Mississippi came in lower than Kansas in energy efficiency. Oklahoma dropped four spots to rank No. 47, just ahead of Kansas.

Leading the nation was Massachusetts, which passed California for the No.1 rating for the first time in the five years the rankings have been done. New York came in third and Oregon fourth, with Vermont, Rhode Island and Washington tied for fifth. Read More »

People left hanging by Efficiency Kansas program may get loans

TOPEKA — About 150 people who were left hanging this summer after the state redirected federal stimulus money from a home energy efficiency program to other projects may get loans for home projects after all. But the bulk of money initially intended for home efficiency projects will go to energy companies for three bio-methane projects.

The Kansas Corporation Commission and Department of Commerce told the Joint Committee on Energy and Environmental Policy Tuesday that they have requested that the Department of Energy let them spend $1.5 million to complete the energy efficiency projects that auditors identified for them.

If approved, the state will notify auditors and make sure customers still want to complete their energy efficiency projects before ensuring lenders and utility companies make quick payments so people can get their projects completed.

Efficiency Kansas offered low-interest loans through partnering banks and utilities for work auditors identified as energy-saving projects. Only 13 people took out loans within the first six months because of complicated nature of the program and banks requiring second mortgages, all at a time of financial uncertainty.  By the end of 2010, the KCC reported the program had resulted in 137 loans for about $935,000. Read More »

Bill Gale resigns; Sedgwick County to get new election commissioner

Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Bill Gale today announced his resignation from the office he has held for the past eight years.

In a statement, Gale said he is giving up the job overseeing the election office to take a position with a nonprofit organization.

Gale resigned in a letter to Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

“A number of reasons factored into the decision,” the letter said. “One of the main ones for me is my thinking that 8 years is a good self-imposed limit on my tenure.”

Gale served eight years on the Wichita City Council before being appointed election commissioner.

Wichita approves subsidy to bring jobs from Oklahoma

Wichita may have lost Coleman Co.’s headquarters to Colorado, but the City Council today took a step toward bringing in 182 jobs from a successor company’s factory in Oklahoma.

The council approved a $42,500 forgivable loan to Johnson Controls, an international heating and air conditioning company that makes Coleman-branded products.

Sedgwick County is expected to provide an equal amount to the company to help it move jobs to Wichita. The County Commission vote is scheduled for late this month or early next month, officials said.

The money will be part of a $1.2 million subsidy package to assist Johnson’s Unitary Products Division in relocating manufacturing work from Norman, Okla. The company now employs about 1,050 full- and part-time workers at facilities in Wichita and Maize.

Johnson acquired Coleman’s heating and air conditioning business during the 1990s and continues to manufacture and market products under the Coleman name. Coleman announced last week that it is pulling 25 key executives from Wichita and relocating them to Denver, essentially moving the corporate headquarters leadership out of the city for the second time in its history.

About $1.1 million of the package to Johnson will come from training grants and sales- and income-tax exemptions offered by the state Department of Commerce.

Two free-market advocates, who regularly object to business-development incentives on ideological grounds, criticized the package. Read More »

Sedgwick County employees agree to “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” treatment for charity

Employees in the division of information and operations at Sedgwick County are at it again with creative ideas to raise money for the United Way.

Last year, Mary Davenport, a project manager for information technology for the county, agreed to shave her head if her co-workers raised at least $2,000 in their internal campaign for the United Way. Employees raised just more than $3,000, so Davenport underwent the clippers.

This year, five men in information technology have agreed to wax body parts such as legs, arms and backs — think Steve Carrell in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” — for charity.

The employee who gets the most votes has to get waxed — by a professional, Carrie Seyam, administrative assistant for the division, is quick to add.

Those who may soon have baby-smooth skin are Kelly Looney, a software instructor; Todd Evans, a customer support analyst; Joe Currier, a customer support manager; and Steven Menefee, a GIS analyst.

Rounding out the fun is Richard Vogt, head of the department. Vogt has agreed to dress up like a woman if employees raise $3,500 and wax his legs if staff raises $5,000.

Other fund-raising events in the county’s campaign include a “spare change” campaign where employees can donate just that and a crockpot cookoff as well as a giveaway for prizes.

Lawmaker says foster care case files may be too open

TOPEKA — Earlier this year, the Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services loosened its records policy to allow parents whose children are now in the foster care system to sign a one-page release form that gives a select House or Senate member access to their family’s case file.

The move gives lawmakers access to records that explain, in detail, the circumstances that led to a child being removed from his or her home. That can include narratives of alleged abuse, medical files, psychiatric evaluations, drug tests, court records, credit history and payment history, among other things.

The policy change, requested by lawmakers, followed years of frustration among elected officials who were trying to get to the bottom of complaints from parents who felt a judge unfairly ruled to have their child removed from their home. Previous rules allowed people to give lawmakers and SRS officials permission to discuss the case, but lawmakers didn’t have access to the actual documents and social workers could decide how much to disclose.

Today, Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said not everyone may be aware of how much information can be disclosed under the new policy. She read portions of the release form out loud to the Joint Committee on Home and Community Based Services Oversight. Read More »