Monday will be your only chance to comment in person on the biggest utility merger in state history, and you’ll have to drive to suburban Topeka to do it.
The Kansas Corporation Commission has scheduled Monday evening at a Topeka-area high school as the single public hearing on the proposed $12.2 billion acquisition of Westar by Great Plains Energy, the parent company of KCP&L.
If the merger is approved, Westar and KCP&L will become a single electric company straddling the Kansas/Missouri border, with 1.5 million customers.
State officials acknowledge that it would difficult, and unlikely, for customers in the Wichita area to make the 290-mile round trip to Topeka for a utility hearing. But they say they’re providing alternate means for them to watch the hearing and comment in writing.
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The commission is not required to hold public hearings, but it has long been customary to do so in high-magnitude cases. In the past, the commission has generally held more than one hearing, at different locations, or provided teleconference links so that residents far from the hearing site could speak directly to the commission.
Customers in other parts of the state will be able to watch the hearing live or view a replay at the KCC website, www.kcc.ks.gov.
And they can submit comments in writing or online at the site.
All comments made to the commissioners will be entered in the official case record, regardless of the method in which it was received.
“All comments made to the commissioners will be entered in the official case record, regardless of the method in which it was received,” said a statement from commission staff sent in response to Eagle inquiries.
Even though it’s one-way communication, live streaming “has made it possible for Kansans from all parts of the state to participate in public hearings that affect their lives and pocketbooks, without having to leave their homes,” the statement said.
David Nickel, consumer counsel for the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, is urging Westar and KCP&L customers who don’t live close to Topeka to weigh in on the merger via the written comment route.
He said CURB, the state agency that represents home and small-business customers, will read all the comments, as should the commissioners themselves. CURB can and probably will use some of the comments in its own testimony, he said.
“The big question in our mind is whether or not this acquisition is in the public interest,” Nickel said. “Is there a net benefit that inures to the ratepayers?”
Kansas law requires that merging utilities prove the deal will actually benefit the rate-paying public, not just the company’s shareholders. Simply not harming customers isn’t enough, he said.
“The questions I would have, were I a member of the audience, would be: Is this going to be a reliable system afterwards? Are there savings that we’re going to enjoy by virtue of this? … How is this going to affect the local economy? Are we going to lose jobs in various locations such as Wichita and south-central Kansas?” Nickel said.
Who will attend?
Attendance has fluctuated at public hearings on utility issues. Some have drawn significant crowds who wanted to communicate directly with the commissioners, while others have been nearly deserted.
No one knows how many people might attend the hearing on the Westar-KCP&L deal.
It could be a lot. Westar is one of Topeka’s biggest private employers, and its headquarters building is an anchor of the city’s downtown business district. In addition, thousands of Kansans, including retired company workers, own stock in Westar.
Under the acquisition terms, Westar stockholders are proposed to receive $51 in cash, plus $9 worth of stock in Great Plains, for each share of Westar. Westar stock closed Thursday at $56.75.
The last comparable commission decision was about 25 years ago, when Wichita-based Kansas Gas & Electric Co. fought off a KCP&L acquisition attempt and instead merged with Topeka-based Kansas Power & Light to become Western Resources. Western Resources was later renamed Westar Energy.
That became a rocky marriage, with Wichita constantly complaining about former KGE customers having to pay higher electric rates than the former KPL customers in northern Kansas. The company and commission justified that differential because the former KPL coal plants provided cheaper power than KGE’s Wolf Creek nuclear plant.
Rates were equalized in 2009 after the cost of Wolf Creek power dropped, coal costs rose and the price difference swung slightly in favor of the former KGE customers.
Public hearing on Westar-KCP&L merger
What: A hearing for members of the general public to learn about and comment to state officials on the proposed acquisition of Westar Energy by Great Plains Energy, the parent company of Kansas City Power & Light
When: 6 p.m. Monday
Where: Shawnee Heights High School, 4201 Southeast Shawnee Heights Road, Tecumseh
How to watch: The hearing will be streamed live on the Kansas Corporation Commission website, www.kcc.ks.gov, and replay will be available on demand.
How to comment
In person: Customers can sign in and speak directly to the commission.
Online: Customers who can’t attend the hearing can go to the KCC website and click the tab marked “Your opinion matters.”
By mail: Write to Kansas Corporation Commission, Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Protection, 1500 SW Arrowhead Road, Topeka, KS 66604‑4027. Reference Docket No. 16-KCPE-593-ACQ.
Source: Kansas Corporation Commission