Monthly Archives: November 2011

Hostile crowd greets Westar at rate hearing

Westar Energy faced a hostile crowd of about 100 Wednesday night at a public hearing on the company’s request for a $90.8 million rate increase.

Wichita-area residents pressed company executives over their request for a 10.6 percent rate of return for their shareholders, and questioned whether the company is trying to raise rates to make up for lost power sales due to customer conservation — a claim Westar denies.

“We are in a depression and people are hurting very badly,” said customer Janice Bradley. “These are hard times. The number of children who are hungry is increasing and their parents are having a hard time. And Westar sees fit to try to demand more than 10 percent return for their shareholders. This is a shame. Shameful.”

The KCC sets Westar’s rates based on two main factors, its cost of providing power to its 687,000 customers, plus a rate of return granted to allow the company an opportunity to make a profit.

Westar has asked the Kansas Corporation Commission to allow it to increase its rates primarily to offset increased expenses for employee pensions, to expand tree trimming and to offset the effects of a cold summer and reduced power usage during the test year used to determine the company’s cost of doing business.

Many of the approximately 30 people who testified to the commission said they are hurting economically and that Westar should share the pain through a smaller guaranteed return.

“We’re getting screwed, let their shareholders take it too,” said customer Russ Pataky, to applause from the crowd.

After the meeting, Westar CEO Mark Ruelle defended the company’s request for a higher percentage for shareholders.

He said it is necessary for the company to raise its rate of return on equity from the current 10.4 to 10.6 percent to continue to attract investment capital for power plant refits and other improvements.

He also said that while Westar’s guaranteed a return, it’s not guaranteed a profit level. The company’s actual profit level is now about 7 1/2 percent and it’s unlikely to actually reach the 10s anytime soon.

Numerous customers, including veteran utility advocate Margaret Miller, 92, accused the company of penalizing conservation by raising rates to offset reductions in sales.

Shelley Durham, a customer from Hesston, said her most recent bill showed she had cut her energy usage substantially but still paid more on the bill.

“I used 15 percent less kilowatt hours November of this year than last year, and my bill is 41 percent higher,” she said. “In a time period where salaries have remained stagnant over the past few years, it seems irresponsible for Westar to again be requesting a hike in rates.”

Ruelle said that customers were misinterpreting that part of Westar’s request. Rather than a penalty for conservation, it was an adjustment to make sure Westar is paid its costs based on an average year, not an unusually cold or hot one.

During a question and answer session leading up to the formal testimony, customers mocked a Westar PowerPoint slide showing the pace of its increases in the last 10 years.

The company’s vice president of strategy, Greg Greenwood, displayed the slide to show that prices for other products had risen faster than the cost of electricity.

But what customers noted was that the company’s rates were steady and at times even decreasing in most of the last decade before jumping nearly 30 percent since 2007.

The main reason for the increase is that Westar is now allowed to seek increase between rate cases for items such as environmental and transmission costs.

One question that was asked but went unanswered during the hearing was how many of Westar’s employees earn in excess of $100,000 a year.

Judging from applause, consensus seemed to be that Westar was overpaying its executives.

Before raising rates, “why don’t we start by making upper management, of all salaried positions, but especially upper management, taking a six to 12 percent cut in their pay,” said Charlie King.

Roberts and Moran introduce bill to restore state authority over natural gas storage safety

Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran have filed a bill in Congress to restore state authority to oversee the safety of facilities that store natural gas in underground caverns, in an effort to prevent potentially deadly explosions like the ones that rocked Hutchinson 10 years ago.

Federal agencies have declined to regulate underground storage, leaving Kansas facilities — as much as 270 billion cubic feet of gas — uninspected for the past 19 months.

Roberts’ and Moran’s bill, the Underground Gas Storage Facility Safety Act of 2011, would allow Kansas to restart its program of safety inspections of interstate gas storage facilities. State regulations would be subject to review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Those inspections were halted 19 months ago after a Topeka federal judge ruled that the Kansas Legislature exceeded its authority when it passed storage-safety laws in the wake of the Hutchinson disaster.

In that accident, gas leaked from an underground storage facility at Yaggy, migrated seven miles underground, popped up through abandoned brine wells and exploded, destroying a half block of downtown businesses and killing an elderly couple in their east Hutchinson mobile home.

Roberts

“We have already lost two lives in Hutchinson in a 2001 explosion,” Roberts said in a statement issued jointly with Moran announcing introduction of the bill. “The threat is real. Our first priority is to protect citizens from harm. We need strong oversight and in this case, I want it to be the state. I trust our folks there on the ground to protect their fellow Kansans from what could be a real tragedy if ignored.”

Pipeline companies store gas underground by pumping it under high pressure into depeleted oil and gas fields and reservoirs. The gas is held there until it is needed by utility customers across the country.

Interstate fields in Kansas can hold as much as 272 billion cubic feet of gas, nearly 2,000 times as much as the 143 million cubic feet that caused months of havoc in Hutchinson.

Topeka federal district court Judge Samuel Crow ruled that regulation of gas stored for interstate commerce is the responsibility of the federal government.

However, the Department of Transportation, the agency tasked with interstate pipeline safety, has decided not to regulate underground storage.

“The federal government has failed to accept responsibility for monitoring the safety of natural gas storage sites in Kansas, after a federal court judge prevented the Kansas Corporation Commission from carrying out those duties,” Moran said. “This legislation would simply give the KCC the ability to ensure the safety of Kansas citizens when the federal government fails to act.”

“I’m happy, glad to see they did that,” said KCC Chairman Mark Sievers. “It’s helpful because it bridges a gap … that’s really kind of a problem.”

Both houses of the Legislature unanimously voted earlier this year for resolutions urging the federal goverment to restore inspection authority to the state. Due to procedural issues, only the House resolution was actually sent to Washington.

Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said he was pleased when he saw Roberts take the lead on restoring inspections of the underground storage.

“It’s important for us and very needed,” O’Neal said.

He also said he thinks it’s wise to have the inspections done by the KCC because its inspectors have more experience and localized knowledge to draw on.

“We can handle this ourselves,” he said. “We don’t often look to Washington.”

McGinn

State Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, also said she appreciated the U.S. senators’ efforts to restore gas storage inspection.

She headed up a special House/Senate committee that considered the issue between last year’s legislative session and this year’s and that Kansas has seen the results when natural gas escapes from containment.

Roberts said he agrees that the state should have the lead role.

“There is simply a gap in jurisdictions and oversight,” Roberts said. “We ought to close that gap before an accident happens that takes another life or damages property. In the absence of clear federal action, it is the commonsense thing to do to allow states to step in.”

Roberts had announced plans to introduce the bill earlier this month and credited Wichita Eagle coverage for bringing the issue to his attention.

At town hall, elderly, disabled and poor vow to fight Brownback on taxes and privatization of social services

A coalition representing the elderly, schoolchildren, public employees, the disabled and the poor vowed today to campaign against Gov. Sam Brownback’s expected efforts to cut state income tax, saying that it would gut services for those in need and line the pockets of the richest Kansans.

They also planned ways to rally opposition to Brownback’s plans to reform Medicaid by shifting thousands of disabled, elderly and low-income residents into a managed care system operated by for-profit companies.

About 80 people gathered at the Aley Park recreation center in south Wichita for a town hall meeting to listen to stories of people in need and organize to fight changes that they say will make an already bad situation worse.

“What’s happened in Topeka over the last few years has not been good for Kansas,” said the event’s moderator, Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association. “Too many people are suffering … in the current climate of ‘no government is good government.’”

Desetti said that 65 disabled or elderly Kansas died in the past year while on waiting lists for government services for which they were eligible.

He said that is unacceptable given that the state has granted $10 billion in tax cuts over the past decade.

“I good times we have tax cuts because we have extra money,” he said. “In bad times, we cut taxes to bring jobs.

“You know, all we do is give tax breaks,” he added. “There isn’t a tax cut that ever filled a pothole or educated a child.”

The Brownback administration is working on tax reform with a committee whose membership is largely undisclosed, although the governor has confirmed that among those consulting on taxes is Arthur Laffer, architect of President Reagan’s supply-side economics.

The governor has signaled that his plan is to dramatically reduce or eliminate the state income tax, which he thinks will make Kansas more economically competitive with states that don’t have one.

But speakers at the town hall said they think that will only shift the burden of funding government onto sales and property taxes.

That, they said would favor the rich and fall disproportionally on middle-class homeowners and poor people, who spend a larger share of their income on housing and necessities.

Rep. Nile Dillmore, D-Wichita, accused Brownback of governing through “little secret groups,” mostly from out of state, to develop the tax and social service policies he’s expected to push when the Legislature convenes in January.

“That’s the people that Brownback and his administration are listening to,” Dillmore said. “They’re not listening to me and they’re not listening to you.” Dillmore said he doesn’t think the governor’s priorities represent Kansas values.

“I’ve lived in this state all my life and I know these people and I know that they don’t look around and say, ‘You know, I’m really worried mostly about my pocketbook’ when people are dying,’” Dillmore said. “They look around and they try to find ways to help.”

Members of the panel told their personal stories of how government social services have affected them and others they know.

Aldona Carney told about what it’s like to parent a mentally disabled son who is prone to violent and self-destructive behavior like trying to eat light bulbs and other nonfood items.

“He’s even pulled out his own adult tooth while biting carpet in a rage,” she said.

Like several other panelists, she said afraid managed care will lack the individualized treatment her son needs.

“We fear funding cuts that will lead to a loss of services we depend on,” she said. “If we can’t find help, I fear that we will be prisoners in our own home.”

The town hall was organized by Kansans for Quality Communities and the Big Tent Coalition.

While they are not affiliated with the “Occupy” movements around the country, they did praise Wichita’s occupy group and allowed a representative to read a statement from the audience.

Event organizers passed out lists with the names and home phone numbers of Wichita area legislators, urging participants to call them and tell their own stories of how government has helped them.

“We (lobbyists) try our best to tell your stories in the Legislature,” Desetti said. “Fewer and fewer Kansas legislators want to listen.”

Public works to Memorial Stadium?

Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan joked this morning about an upcoming trip to Lawrence that public works director David Spears is taking.

“He’s going to Lawrence later this week, and there’s speculation he’s applying for the coach’s job,” Buchanan said, alluding to the University of Kansas looking for a new football coach.

That drew laughs commissioners and county staff.

But Commissioner Karl Peterjohn must not have heard about Turner Gill losing his job because he joked back that KU basketball coach Bill Self likely wasn’t in danger of his losing his job anytime soon.

That drew some silent smiles.

Got a gripe or suggestion for Sedgwick County? Commissioners taking input at two meetings

Been itching to get something off your chest about Sedgwick County? Two county commissioners are holding meetings this week to get input from constituents.

Commissioner Jim Skelton’s 5th District Advisory Board will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Oaklawn Activity Center, 4904 S. Clifton. Skelton began a district advisory board earlier this year. Skelton serves District 5, which includes southeastern Wichita, Derby and Mulvane.

During this week’s meeting, a news release from the county said, health department director Claudia Blackburn will give an overview of her department and the medical reserve corps. City of Wichita chief engineer Gary Janzen will discuss the Oaklawn south water main replacement project.

The board meets the last Wednesday of each month and gives residents a chance to talk to Skelton about issues in their neighborhoods and concerns about the county.

The board will not meet in December.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau is holding a town hall meeting this weekend.

Ranzau, who represents District 4 in north-central Wichita, Valley Center and Park City, will meet with residents from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Life Point Church in Valley Center.

Sedgwick County commission votes 4-1 to give $1 million for Bombardier parking lot

Sedgwick County commissioners voted 4-1 — with member Richard Ranzau voting “no” — to spend $1 million for a parking lot at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport for Bombardier.

The incentive is part of a package the state, city and county put together to help Bombardier expand and bring 450 jobs to Wichita.

Ranzau said the company was in better financial shape to spend the $1 million than the county was, expaining his “no” vote.

“It’s going to hurt us more than it’s going to help Bombardier,” Ranzau said.

But other commissioners disagreed.

“i say it’s ‘Good News Wednesday,’ ” Commissioner Tim Norton said. “We’re putting people back to work.”

Sedgwick County commission chairman perturbed by Boeing

Dave Unruh, chairman of the Sedgwick County commission, pulled a photo of a KC-46A tanker off the wall Tuesday to make a point.

Unruh read an inscription on the framed photo, given to the county by Boeing after it won a contract to provide tankers for the U.S. Air Force.

“We’re honored that the U.S. Air Force has selected the Boeing KC-46A to be its next generation aerial refueling tanker, ensuring our nation’s warfighters will have the advanced capabilities they need. It’s a victory for tanker crews and for Kansas, where Boeing supports thousands of jobs and works with more than 450 suppliers across the state.

“We’re proud of our partnership with Kansas and look forward to a bright future working together.”

Unruh said Boeing gave the photo to the county only months ago and is now studying whether to stay in Wichita.

He is not happy about the prospect of the company leaving the Air Capital.

Boeing officials confirmed Monday that they are studying the future of their presence here.

Aviation reporter Molly McMillin reported in her blog that the Kansas Congressional delegation and Gov. Sam Brownback said the company promised jobs to the state when it won an aerial refueling tanker contract, and “we expect the company to honor that commitment.”

“I’m agitated too,” Commissioner Tim Norton said.

Boeing said it expects to finish the study by the end of this year or early next year.

Report: Infant death rate falls while fewer Kansans marry and more divorce

Kansas’ rate of infant deaths declined in 2010 to the lowest it has been since the state health department began collecting vital statistics in 1912, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported this morning. But it comes at a time when Kansas has one of the highest infant death rates in the nation.

The new data are part of KDHE’s Annual Summary of Vital Statistics, which was released today. The summary provides detailed statistical breakdowns, and it is used by health care professionals, state officials and others to track trends and evaluate services.

Among the highlights:

  • The number of reported abortions fell from 9,474 in 2009 to 8,373 last year.
  • There were about 1,000 fewer births in 2010 than 2009
  • The number of marriages decreased by about 100 and divorces and annulments increased by more than 200.
  • Heart disease surpassed cancer as the leading cause of death, but the 10 top causes of death remained the same: heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, unintentional injuries, Alzheimer’s disease, pneumonia and influenza, diabetes, kidney disease, and suicide. (KDHE notes that the top 10 killers a century ago were: heart disease, tuberculosis, kidney disease, violent deaths other than suicide, pneumonia, congenital debility and malformations, diarrhea and enteritis, cerebral hemorrhage, and cancer)
  • The average age for a Kansan to die in 2010 was 74.1. A national vital statistics report from March 2011 put life expectancy at 78.2.

Kansas cut mental health spending more than most states

A new report shows Kansas is among 10 other states that have made the deepest cuts to mental health spending and that those reductions could lead to more risks for a growing number of people with mental illnesses, according to The Kansas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Kansas trimmed mental health spending by about 12 percent over the past four years, the nonprofit mental health advocacy group reported.

The report is based on data for non-Medicaid mental health services financed by state general funds through the state’s mental health agencies.

NAMI Kansas Executive Director Rick Cagan said state cuts go beyond what the report shows. He said data shows cuts to mental health reform grants, Medicaid, MedKan, community support medication program and funds for non-Medicaid psychiatric inpatient screenings.

John Brennan, a Wichita lawyer and member of the NAMI Kansas Board of Directors, said people with serious mental illness face challenges in getting services.

“We have to make up for lost ground,” he said in a prepared statement.

In 2006, the group gave Kansas an F on its national report card. It upgraded Kansas to a D in 2009.

Here’s an Associated Press story with a national perspective.

Catholic and Protestant leaders support pathway to legal citizenship for illegal immigrants

TOPEKA – Citing Scripture and the early history of the United States, six Catholic and Protestant leaders from Kansas called on the federal government to act on comprehensive immigration reform.

They advocated for a path to legal citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country, though they said those people should perhaps be penalized somehow as part of the process, perhaps with a fine or community service.

“It is just too simplistic to say to them: ‘What part of illegal don’t you understand?’ It also seems unworkable to deport all undocumented immigrants, telling them to go to the back of the line of applicants seeking legal entrance into our country,” the faith leaders wrote in a joint statement.

The leaders said undocumented immigrants broke the law coming here. But they said that with the exception of criminals, who should be arrested and deported, most are “God-fearing, church-going, hard-working and family-oriented folk, who just want to have a chance for those things needed to live in human dignity.”

Bishop Scott J. Jones, resident bishop of the Kansas Area of the United Methodist Church, said political leaders should try to balance the respect for law with hospitality for illegal immigrants.

The leaders didn’t endorse or criticize any specific laws, such as a the voter ID law the state has approved or the Arizona-style law that Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is Baptist, helped author.

Instead, they said they want to frame the conversation in hopes of encouraging more civil discourse on the topic of illegal immigration before the 2012 legislative session begins. They plan to send their statement to Gov. Sam Brownback, who is Catholic, and other state and federal lawmakers from Kansas. Read More »