Monthly Archives: February 2012

Wichita council looking ahead to more increases in water and sewer rates

As they did last year, water and sewer rates will be going up for years to come.

The only real question is how much, and how will the increases be spread over time.

That’s the final analysis after a City Council workshop today that was called to try to get ahead of future water and sewer needs.

City utility staff presented the council with eight alternatives for water and sewer rates. All hiked rates over the next 10 years.

The most plausible scenarios call for increasing water and sewer revenue by $65 million to $78 million over that period.

All those alternatives include money for inflation costs, repair and replacement of aging equipment, plus some money for expansion to handle future anticipated growth.

City staffers acknowledged that some of the scenarios aren’t realistic, but were put out for discussion so council members could see how certain expenses affect overall costs.

The minimalist approach would cost only about $11.5 million in rate hikes over 10 years — enough money to cover inflation of current expenses but not much else.

On the up side, it would mean no water rate hikes for seven of the 10 years and no sewer rate hikes for six.

However, that plan would include no capital upgrades to replace aging equipment and make no accommodation for growth. It would “result in major increases in the number of water main breaks and sewage backups due to not investing in existing infrastructure,” according to the staff report.

At the other end of the spectrum is a plan that would accommodate inflation, improve the existing system, and provide $227 million for projects aimed at future growth.

The downside there is that it would require substantial rate increases every year, hiking rates a total of nearly 70 percent by 2022.

The plan the council ultimately selects will undoubtedly fall somewhere between those two extremes.

One scenario that is likely to get a lot of consideration is a plan to accommodate upgrades and growth, while assuming a 3 percent reduction in operating costs due to increased efficiency.

That plan starts with a 6.8 percent rate hike in 2013, tapering down to a 3.8 percent annual hike at the end of 10 years. The overall 10-year increase would be 64.3 percent.

Officials also expressed interest in a scenario where the city gambles on development not picking up for a while. That plan pushes growth-related water and sewer projects back by two years.

That plan would have a slightly smaller rate increase than the scenario where operating expenses are reduced. The total 10-year rate increase would be 63.2 percent.

One wild card that caused some dissent in the meeting is the cost of complying with expected future Environmental Protection Agency regulations on the quality of water discharged from sewage treatment systems.

Public Works Director Alan King said deepending on how much phosphorus and nitrogen the EPA decides to allow in wastewater, the cost of building new treatment facilities could be anywhere from $101 million to $146 million for Wichita – plus operating costs from $980,000 to $1.8 million a year.

In a redux of the an earlier council debate on water quality in storm runoff, council member Michael O’Donnell said he opposes spending money to meet “intrusive and overbearing EPA standards.”

City Manager Robert Layton replied that the city is planning around the “worst case scenario” – meaning the strictest and costliest EPA standards – “so we don’t caught short, because the whole idea is to get (rate) predictability.”

Layton also said the effluent regulations will offer considerably less “room for maneuvering” than stormwater regulations.

“Every city in the United States will have to adhere to this,” Layton said.

O’Donnell however, said he doesn’t believe all communities will have to comply.

“Certain cities, small cities just couldn’t afford it,” he said. “I believe our congressman is fighting against a lot of these mandates right now.”

There was some good news for the water and sewer system.

King told the council the city has saved $3.7 million in the water department and $5.6 in sewer through restructuring of debt.

In addition, he said, the city made $9.5 million more than it expected last year, because of increased use of irrigation during the hot, dry summer.

The additional $18.8 million was calculated in to the scenarios presented to the council, he said.

The council isn’t expected to take any immediate action on water and sewer rates, which were just raised in December.

A timeline distributed to the council projects having “community dialogue” on rates in August through October and council deliberations in November, leading up to final December decision on next year’s rates.

 

 

 

O’Donnell apologizes to council over campaign e-mail flap

Wichita City Council member Michael O’Donnell apologized today to his council colleagues for using his city e-mail to campaign for a friend seeking re-election to the state Senate.

“It was my sloppy and honest mistake, and I am sorry,” he said at the start of a council workshop meeting.

O’Donnell is facing a March 21 hearing at the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission in connection with the incident.

“I will fully cooperate with the Ethics Commission and look forward to resolving this issue and moving forward civilly and in good faith,” O’Donnell said.

Mayor Carl Brewer said he appreciated O’Donnell’s apology and accepted it on behalf of the council.

“It takes a big person to apologize,” the mayor said, adding that he thinks O’Donnell set an example for politicians at the local, state and federal levels.

O’Donnell has admitted he used his city computer to solicit financial sponsors for an Oct. 30, 2011, meet-and-greet on behalf of state Sen. Garrett Love, R-Montezuma. O’Donnell sent the e-mail to 39 individuals.

State law prohibits using any public resources for campaigns for elective office, according to Carol Williams, executive director of the Ethics Commission.

The commission can levy a fine of as much as $5,000 for a violation of the state’s Campaign Finance Act. In practice, the commission has seldom levied heavy fines for first-time violations.

O’Donnell’s contrition today is a marked contrast to his earlier comments on the matter.

He had previously called the matter “a political hit job” by some of his council colleagues, including Brewer, to try to still his conservative voice on the council.

O’Donnell is often the sole dissenter on spending matters.

He is a staunch opponent of a plan by the council to help finance development of a downtown boutique hotel by allowing the developer to keep a portion of the hotel’s guest tax, estimated to be a $2.25 million benefit over the next 15 years.

A ballot measure challenging the council’s decision is up for a public vote today.

A “yes” vote will allow the Ambassador Hotel developer to keep the tax money and a “no” vote would overturn the council’s decision and deny the developer the tax rebate.

After the meeting, Brewer said he doesn’t have any hard feelings over O’Donnell’s initial criticism of him.

“I don’t worry about that,” Brewer said. “It’s part of what comes along with my job, and these (council members’) jobs too.”

 

 

Immigration presentation scheduled by library, League of Women Voters

The contentious issue of immigration will be the subject of a lunchtime forum Tuesday sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Wichita Public Library.

The forum, titled “Immigration Laws for Kansas: Good, Bad or Neutral?” will feature Emira Palacios of the pro-immigrant group Sunflower Community Action, and attorney Larry D. Ehrlich.

The talk will likely touch on a proposed state law to allow police to detain those they suspect of being in the country illegally and the voter ID law that will compel new voters to provide citizenship documentation when they register to vote, said Julie Linneman, Coordinator of Programming and Outreach for the library.

The program is part of a monthly series of “Tuesday topics” presentations, designed to spur discussion and answer people’s questions on  public issues, Linneman said. The topic for March 27 will be health care funding.

“We’ve asked people that we think have a lot of experience with these issues,” Linneman said.

Tuesday’s event will run from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Central Library, 232 S. Main, Wichita.

Participants are invited to bring a lunch, beverages will be provided. The issue presentation will begin about noon, with remarks by the speakers followed by a question-and-answer period.

 

New proposed redistricting map would set up Senate match between McGinn, Mason

TOPEKA — Only a cartographer or a state legislator could get this excited over maps.

Cartographers, because they like maps. Legislators, because where the lines are drawn for their district can directly affect their future as officeholders.

Today, the Senate Reapportionment Committee added a third map to two proposals that had drawn some condemnation from conservatives because they drew a conservative challenger out of the district of Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick.

Map No. 3, proposed by Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, puts McGinn and businessman Gary Mason in the same district, as they are now.

In written testimony to the committee, Mason complained he was being “Gary-mandered” out of the district where he wants to run, a play on words alluding to “Gerrymadering,” the practice of drawing districts to favor one candidate or party over another.

The committee chairman, Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, forbade confreres from reading their testimony at the hearing.

“This is not a political debate,” Owens said. “This is not a political discussion, if it were to turn into any kind of session like that … I will close this hearing in a heartbeat.

In his written statement, Mason said: “I am from the private sector and I believe in competition … Competition in government is good. It is healthy and results in better governance, transparency and most importantly creates better citizen representation.”

McGinn released a statement of her own noting that the district she represents, the 31st Senate District, must shed about 7,500 voters to reach population parity with other districts.

She said that is “a reflection of the hard work our local leaders and I have put into growing jobs and attracting new residents.”

“As the Legislature works through this process, it should not be focused on where one person lives or doesn’t live” she wrote. “It should be focused on making sure the new districts include communities with common interests.”

Although he was admonished not to read his prepared statement, Mason did speak to the committee and asked if he could submit his own redistricting map. A representative of the Legislative Research Department offered to help him.

Owens warned Mason that there could be a long line of people also looking for Legislative Research assistance. “Certainly, the priority is going to be given to legislators who are trying to get maps drawn,” he said.

Sen Ruth Teichman, R-Stafford, who served on the last redistricting committee 10 years ago, questioned whether private citizens should even be allowed to tap state resources to create their own redistricting maps.

Back then, “I don’t believe then that there was availability for outside people to use our staff,” she said.

Owens said he’d check and see if that is allowable and put the policy on the state’s reapportionment web site, redistricting.ks.gov.

McGinn said she thought the state has already made accommodations for members of the public to develop their own redistricting maps.

“We have a web site, I thought, where people can go in and play around with that,” she said.

The Progressive Congress Action Fund has set up an online redistricting map-making program at http://action.progressivecongress.org/redistricting. Emporia State University Professor Michael A. Smith used that site for his students to make their own redistricting maps, and announced a statewide contest for the general public to try to come up with maps that most closely match those that ultimately emerge from the Legislature.

Owens acknowledged that the first two maps have “gotten a lot of discussion, a lot of anxiety and a lot of angst.”

He said he doesn’t support them himself, but released the maps to create a starting point and spur committee members to bring in their own proposals that have, so far, been kept under wraps.

“One of the worst things is how many people have secrets,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about this ‘you show me yours and I’ll show you mine.’ We’re beyond that.”

 

Utility commissioners take a hard look at Westar returns at hearing on rate increase

TOPEKA — Kansas Corporation commissioners indicated today that they will take a long hard look at Westar Energy’s claim that the company needs at least a 10 percent shareholder return to keep its investors happy.

Toward the end of two days of hearings on a proposed Westar rate increase, Commissioner Ward Loyd and Chairman Mike Sievers pressed their chief rate analyst on how much Westar would really need to attract the investment money necessary to run the utility in a profitable and reliable manner.

At issue is the so-called “return on equity,” the money Westar gets to provide a profit to its stockholders.

A settlement reached between Westar, the KCC staff and the company’s large commercial and industrial customers would set the return at 10 percent of company revenue.

Overall, Westar would get a $50 million rate hike if the settlement is approved.

The Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board is challenging the settlement, saying it is not fair to the residential and small-business utility consumers it represents.

The three corporation commissioners could accept the settlement as is, make changes to it, or throw it out entirely and set the rates themselves.

On Monday, Westar’s chief executive officer, Mark Ruelle, testified that nothing less than 10 percent would do in keeping Westar competitive with other utilities. As part of his testimony, he displayed charts showing that most midwest utilities whose rates have been set in the past 13 months got more than 10 percent.

“I was bothered a little bit yesterday by a statement that was made by Mr. Ruelle when he was talking about Westar’s concern about the return on equity and how it could not for the good of the company be anything lower than 10 percent,” Loyd said. “If you read the literature over the course of the last year or so, talking about the fallout from the worldwide financial meltdown and the Great recession, my impression from what I hear coming from corporate financial officers is that the cost of equity for a typical US corporation is around 8 percent.”

Noting the volatility of investment markets and the high national debt, Sievers indicated he would rather try to look ahead to what Westar might need in the future, rather than what other utilities have gotten in the past.

“Are we living in, I guess, in unique times, and because by virtue of that, we need to kind of think out of the box?” he asked.

The commissioners’ managing financial analyst, Adam Gatewood, had testified earlier that he didn’t see 10 percent return as a magic number to keep Westar healthy.

“I don’t see any indication that something below 10 percent causes a dire consequence or would raise capital costs to an electric utility,” Gatewod testified.

Later, under direct questioning from Sievers, he added: “I do disagree with the (Westar) view that 10 percent is a bright line we have to never touch.”

Gatewood’s own analysis had said an acceptable return could fall anywhere between 9 and 10 percent, and he recommended 9.5.

A one percent swing in Westar’s return represents about $30 million in rates.

Westar spokeswoman Gina Penzig said the company stands by its position that anything less than a 10 percent return could discourage investors and reduce the company’s stock price, if only because other utilities have gotten that much.

“If you start to fall noticeably below the pack, it’s going to raise some eyebrows,” she said.

Earlier, Westar did agree to a key concession on how customers will pay for environmental improvements to the company’s power plants.

In doing so, it created a potential rift between the company and businesses who allied with Westar on the proposed settlement.

Westar lawyer Martin Bregman told the commission that the company would not object if commissioners roll existing environmental costs — which customers now pay as a separate line item on their bills — into basic rates.

CURB has argued that the environmental costs should be included in basic rates rather than continuing on customer bills as a separate “environmental cost recovery rider,” or ECRR. At present, the ECRR generates about $56 million a year for Westar.

The change in handling of environmental costs will probably not immediately benefit consumers, it could help keep rates down in the future, Springe said.

With or without the change, Westar is guaranteed to get back all its costs for environmental improvements, whether through base rates or a separate bill line.

However, the formula used to divide the environmental costs between customers currently favors large commercial and industrial customers over small businesses and homeowners, Springe said.

The big customers could lose that favored treatment if the environmental improvement costs are rolled into base rates, where the formula for allocating rates between customer classes is more favorable to residential and small-business consumers, Springe said.

Dick Rohlfs, Westar’s director of rates, disagreed with Springe’s analysis that small customers could end up better off with the environmental improvement costs in the rate base.

“At the end of the day, does it really matter?” I don’t think it does,” Rohlfs said.

However, several of Westar’s big-business allies in the rate settlement seemed to think it does matter.

Lawyers representing Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods, Dillons, the Wichita school district and the state school board association, all told the commission that they would see it as a “material change” if the commission alters the rate allocations in the settlement.

That would allow them to abandon the settlement and further litigate the case.

Attorneys in the case are now scheduled to file a final round of written briefs and the commission is required to set Westar’s new rates by April 23.

Gov. Brownback orders flags lowered in honor of Wichita Judge Wesley Brown

Judge Brown

Gov. Sam Brownback has directed that flags be flown at half-staff Saturday to honor Judge Wesley E. Brown of Wichita, who passed away Jan. 23 at the age of 104.

Judge Brown, still a sitting judge at the time of his death, was the oldest serving federal judge in US history.

After working in private practice and as Reno County Attorney, Brown was appointed to the federal Bankruptcy Court in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower.

Four years later, President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the District Court bench, where he served more than 50 years.

Judge Brown was a Kansas native, born in Hutchinson in 1907. He earned his law degree in 1933 at the Kansas City School of Law, now known as the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

Serving on the bench past his 100th birthday was not the first time that Judge Brown had been considered aged for his job. During World War II, he joined the Navy at age 37 — unusually old for a new recruit — and quipped in a 2010 American Bar Association profile that he felt like he was “the oldest lieutenant in the Navy.”

In ordering flags flown at half staff, Brownback hailed Judge Brown as “an exemplary American and an exemplary Kansan.

“His tireless work ethic was proof of his dedication to the country and to his duty,” Brownback said in a statement. “Judge Brown is a shining example to all Kansans. He will be sorely missed.”

A celebration of life service honoring Judge Brown will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at College Hill United Methodist Church, 2930 E. First St., Wichita.

Experts and advocates diverge on tax policy

 

Jonathan Williams, of ALEC, talks with about 40 lawmakers, lobbyists and citizens at a luncheon in Topeka Tuesday.

TOPEKA — States with lower tax burdens and reduced government spending grow faster, a tax policy specialist with the American Legislative Exchange Council told lawmakers Tuesday.

“People vote with their feet,” said Jonathan Williams, who directs the tax and fiscal policy task force for ALEC, a leading limited government think tank. “And people are moving to states with lower rates.”

Williams’ message, which closely matches Gov. Sam Brownback’s message on taxes, comes as members of the House Taxation Committee begin this week to hear the pros and cons of Brownback’s proposal to reduce individual income tax rates, eliminate taxes on most small businesses and make up for reduced tax revenues by scrapping many popular tax credits and deductions. 

Brownback’s plan has faced widespread criticism from those who enjoy home mortgage deductions and from lower-income workers who benefit from the earned income tax credit, both which are on the list Brownback would do away with. And in a news conference Tuesday it faced more push back from a coalition of education, healthcare and clergy groups. (More on that in a bit.)

But there’s agreement among some of the state’s most influential and conservative groups on some of the core aspects of Brownback’s proposal, such as reducing tax rates and slowing the growth of government spending.

On Wednesday, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce’s tax reform coalition plans a 2 p.m. news conference in the statehouse that is expected to include Brownback, chairmen of the House and Senate tax committees and people from a variety of business groups.

Read More »

Former Penn. governor and cable celebrity Ed Rendell to keynote for Kansas Dems

Rendell

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, widely reputed as one Democratic Party’s most dynamic public voices, will be the featured speaker when Kansas Democrats gather for their annual Washington Day event in Topeka Feb. 25, the state party announced today.

Rendell served two terms as governor following two terms as mayor of Philadelphia. He was chairman of the Democratic National Commitee in 2000, when Bill Clinton won his second term as president.

Considered a centrist in the Democratic party, Rendell remains closely linked to the Clintons. He was a leading supporter and campaign surrogate for then-Sen. Hillary Clinton in 2008, when she sought the party’s presidential nomination that ultimately was won by Barack Obama.

After the election, Rendell remained in the public eye, supporting – and sometimes criticizing – Democratic politicians and policies as a frequent guest on cable-network talk shows.

Last year, after leaving the governorship, he signed as on-air political analyst for the NBC and MSNBC networks.

Rendell recently confirmed that he is one of the leaders of an investment group that wants to purchase Philadelphia’s two main newspapers, The Inquirer and the Daily News. The Philadelphia papers were sister papers of The Eagle until the 2006 breakup of the Knight Ridder Corp.

Rendell will speak during the Washington Days banquet at the Ramada Convention Center Downtown Topeka.

For more information, call 785-234-0425 or visit www.ksdp.org.

City divided on when to change Douglas chokepoint

The Wichita City Council has approved a traffic plan for Douglas that calls for the eventual elimination of a chokepoint that narrows the street to one lane eastbound for the block in front of Eaton Place.

At least one council member supports making that change as soon as possible, while the main planner for the area wants to hold off a while.

The plan itself does not call for immediate change, but is designed to phase in over time as redevelopment takes place along Wichita’s downtown main street.

Funded with $125,000 in federal and state grants, the traffic study makes a series of recommendations to make Douglas easier to use for motorists, pedestrians and public-transit users.

The Design Workshop, a Denver-based consulting firm, recommends that the city restore two-way traffic, both directions, on Douglas all the way through downtown from McLean to Washington. About 10 years ago, at the request of a developer, the city narrowed Douglas to one eastbound lane for about a block to replace parallel parking with angle parking in front of the Eaton Place.

That causes congestion, as eastbound traffic leaving downtown is forced to merge from two lanes down to one lane between Emporia and St. Francis streets.

Council member Michael O’Donnell said he supports moving toward eliminating the bottleneck as soon as possible.

“It is that quick fix that would make it easier” to travel through the area, he said.

Scott Knebel, downtown revitalization manager in the Metropolitan Area Planning Department, acknowledged that the bottleneck causes traffic problems at rush hour, but recommended against acting rapidly to change that.

He said fledgling retail businesses in the Eaton block are “fragile” and benefit from the easier access that angled parking provides as compared to parallel parking. The city is working to provide more angle spaces on side streets.

Before restriping Douglas for four lanes in front of the Eaton block, “We need to make sure we have a plan for convenient and short-term parking for their customers,” Knebel said.

O’Donnell, however, said every other business in every other block on Douglas downtown gets by with parallel parking in front.

The report also recommends:

  • Installing trees and landscaping in what is now the center lane of Douglas, with turn pockets only at intersections.

-Parallel parking on both sides of the street throughout downtown.

  • Curb extensions to keep cars from trying to park too close to intersections and to reduce the distance people have to walk in traffic to cross the street.

  • Improved street furniture, public art, trash cans, etc, along with wider sidewalks to allow for more outdoor dining and activities.

-Bus shelters every two blocks.

Opponents criticize effort to move up start date of citizenship requirement for voter registration

TOPEKA – Kansas is ill-prepared to ensure poor, elderly, minority and transient Kansans have convenient access to documents and ID cards that will allow them to cast a ballot in elections this year, voter advocates said this morning.

Louis Goseland, who represents the KanVote group fighting voter suppression, said he and others in Wichita have tested agencies to see if they’re prepared for voter ID laws now in effect and that those agencies seem uninformed and unprepared to help would-be voters.

“It’s just been one thing after another,” he told the House Elections Committee this morning. Read More »