There’s a certain helpless feeling that comes with doing battle over a bill from a utility giant such as Kansas City Power & Light. The company, it seems, has all the power — and the ability to turn yours off.
As of Thursday, close to 54,000 people who have found themselves in that untenable position had signed an online petition to protest the spike in their bills that resulted from changes the utility made in July to its flat fee, or budget billing program.
The conversion coincided with an excessively hot summer, and that one-two punch produced exorbitant bills for many KCP&L customers.
A flood of complaints followed. Stuck with no other options, consumers were forced to pony up, make late payment arrangements or request a technician to double-check their meters.
The high costs have caused hardships for KCP&L customers affected by the switch. The company announced Friday that it will not disconnect residential customers through the month of September, and they will be offered a four-month period to pay their balances.
“We understand that our customers are feeling the stress of higher bills due to one of the hottest summers on record,” Chief Customer Officer Chuck Caisley said in a statement. “We are providing extra time and additional payment options to help customers manage this expense.”
The gesture is a step in the right direction. But KCP&L customers’ current financial challenges bear a strong resemblance to a situation I faced 12 years ago.
I struggled to pay utility bills as a single father working a job that barely paid above minimum wage.
One month, my electric bill was about $225, and I could not afford to pay it on time. The company, then Ameren UE, eventually shut off service to the modest two-bedroom flat I shared with my first-born son, who was 12 at the time.
A few days after losing service, I came up with enough money to pay the bill in full. But a customer service rep informed me I would have to fork over a $500 deposit in addition to the money already owed.
But how could I afford to pay a deposit when I could barely scrape together the money for the bill?
The customer service rep was unmoved. He told me to pay up or remain in the dark. Then he hung up.
I was dumbfounded. And I felt helpless. What could I do? Who could I complain to?
Ameren UE, much like KCP&L, was my only option for service.
I searched high and low until I stumbled across the number for the Missouri Public Service Commission in the phone book.
The commission offers consumer protection against monopolies, but I had no clue what it could do for me when I called.
I explained my grievance, filed a complaint and days later, a representative from the oversight commission called to inform me that they had spoken to Ameren UE about my situation.
The utility company agreed to waive the deposit if I paid the balance in full. No problem, I said, and the situation was resolved.
Many people in the Kansas City area have similar stories. But they may not know what their options are.
Cara Spencer is executive director of Consumers Council of Missouri, which advocates for fair utility rates, among other issues. Spencer says customers who have questions about KCP&L’s billing practices should file their grievances with the Public Service Commission.
Kansas residents should contact the Kansas Corporation Commission about their concerns.
Both agencies will decide on KCP&L’s request for a rate increase before the end of the year. Citizen input will play a significant role in those decisions.
“People need to proactively participate in the rate case hearings,” Spencer said. “It really does make a difference with the commission.”
KCP&L can require new, existing or delinquent customers to pay a deposit to establish or reestablish service. The utility company spreads the deposit over four months, so that’s a positive.
But the requirement is onerous for families struggling to make ends meet. By filing a formal complaint, consumers can at least contest billing irregularities
To file a complaint with the Missouri Public Service Commission, customers can call 1-800-392-4211 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
KCP&L customers in Kansas can contact the Kansas Corporation Commission at 1-800-662-0027 or email email@example.com.