Winfield residents had the opportunity to ask questions about a billing program set up to help the city pay its massive natural gas bill left over from a February winter storm, while city staff clarified the billing process and said they would keep fighting to reduce costs even further during a meeting Monday night at the Baden Square Community Center.
The city originally accrued $13.3 million in natural gas charges for February, a month that saw wind chills plunge into the minus-20s and -30s over several days due to a winter storm. During that time, natural gas prices for the pipeline serving Winfield skyrocketed to more than $400 per unit, higher than they have ever been. State officials, including the Kansas Attorney Generals’ office, are investigating the possibility of price gouging.
The city’s bill has since been reduced to $8.5 million after the pipeline company serving the city declined to assess penalties for increased usage during the storm. A typical natural gas purchase for that month is around $200,000, according to the presentation by Winfield City Manager Taggart Wall.
The city has paid its gas bill using a low-interest loan obtained from the State of Kansas, but now must pay it back over the next six years. Under the current plan, gas utility customers will be charged an extra 80 cents per unit of natural gas used during the March, April and May billing cycles in order for the city to accrue enough cash to make its first loan payment in June. After that, the adjustment will be 28 cents per unit per for the remainder of the repayment term. The most-May adjustment was previously announced as 30 cents per unit, but was lowered after the penalties were eliminated.
Wall said efforts continue to try and reduce the total financial liability for customers, and litigation is still a possibility.
“I”m not saying that we have a short road ahead, because we probably don’t,” said Wall regarding the ongoing investigation and cost reduction efforts. “That’s just, unfortunately, the reality of where we’re at. But it doesn’t mean we’re just going to roll over and move on.”
Wall said there is some aid available for customers who struggle to pay utility bills, including payment plans and Low Income Energy Assistance Program funds, which the city can help them access.
Some people questioned the fairness of using a monthly adjustment to pass the costs on to future customers who may not have been using city utilities at the time of the storm.
“For citizens, the most fair thing to do is for people to pay for what they used,” Chris Tyler said.
Kyle Bryant questioned if the city’s efforts to notify customers of the rising costs, including social media posts and press releases, were enough. He also asked for city officials to keep on top of the attorney generals’ price gouging investigation.
“Please be a squeaky wheel. Don’t let us down. Don’t wait for them to call you,” Bryant said.
Several residents thanked staff for hosting the meeting and providing a forum to get more information and ask questions, as well as a way to clear up rumors.
Danielle Tipton thanked staff for keeping the gas on during the cold streak, and not resorting to rolling blackouts as some other utility providers did, since some people would have had no place to go if that happened.