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Western seeks self-regulation

POSTED: April 21, 2014 4:00 a.m.

UPDATE FROM April 22 information meeting in Ellsworth: About 40 member-owners of Western Coperative Electric attended a meeting to learn about self-regulation, the fate of which will be decided in a mail ballot election in late April and early May. About 45 attended the 30-minute session in Western's Ellsworth district office on Evans Street.

Pick up a copy of the May 1, 2014, edition of the Ellsworth County Independent-Reporter for more meeting coverage.

This month, member-owners of the WaKeeney-based Western Cooperative Electric will vote on removing the utility from under the regulation of the Kansas Corporation Commission. The election, from April 25 to May 9, will be done by mail ballot.
Cooperative members in Ellsworth, the utility’s largest customer, say they tend to support the move toward self-regulation; however, they would like to see the mail ballot extended past this issue to the annual election of board members and other decisions.
This year’s annual meeting starts with a noon luncheon, followed by the business meeting at 1 o’clock, in WaKeeney.
Rob Fillion, executive director of the Smoky Hill Development Corporation, said attending the meeting almost two hours away pretty much kills a day, which makes it difficult for residents here to vote for board members unless they take a day off work.

“As a whole, I really do think it’s beneficial — if we have a voice,” Fillion said of the self-regulation.
Ellsworth County is part of District 3, which also includes Barton, Rush, Ness and Gove counties. The district has three representatives, Larry Evans of Gove, who serves as president; Robert Abell of Grinnell and Charles Luetters of Ransom.
Ellsworth resident Dale Weinhold, who is retired after working almost 40 years for Smoky Hills and later Rolling Hills electric cooperatives, will be on the ballot. His opposition is Abell, who has been on the board since 1994.
“It’s something that probably needs to be addressed,” Weinhold said of the voting structure, which also allows all members at the annual meeting to vote for board representatives from every district and not just the one where they live.
He is supportive of the self-regulation, a move his former cooperative made soon after the option became available in 1992. Twenty-eight of the state’s 29 electric distribution cooperatives are now self-regulated. Included is the western part of the Western territory; however, all cooperative members will vote. If the question fails, the utility’s western side will again be under KCC regulation for the first time since 1994.
When Western and several other cooperatives formed Mid-Kansas Electric Company in 2007 to acquire the assets and service territory of Aquila-West Plains Kansas, rates in the new territory remained under the regulation of the KCC.
“As a result, the rates for some of the members served by Western have been self-regulated and the others have been under KCC jurisdiction,” Western’s general manager Darrin Lynch wrote in an article for the April Kansas Country Living.
“That discrepancy has required Western to invest time and resources to maintain separate records.”
Company spokesman Dennis Deines said cost and time are the two main factors behind the self-regulation proposal.
Western has argued two rate cases before the KCC since the acquisition at a cost of $85,000 each, he said. And that does not include the KCC’s yearly assessment, which the cooperative puts at as much as $75,000 for the entire territory if members reject self-regulation.
“Those are all expenses and guess who gets to pay for these — you and I do,” Deines said.
As when Weinhold worked for Rolling Hills, it can take the KCC a year to decide a rate case, often making the cooperative’s original information worthless.
“It’s very expensive to be under the KCC,” Weinhold said. “By the time you get a rate increase through, it’s time for another one. It’s just a very burdensome procedure.”
In March, cooperative members received a mailing from the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board (CURB) outlining the advantages of third-party oversight of rates, including:
• Continued service by the commission’s Public Affairs and Consumer Protection Division regarding rate, service and billing complaints.
• Continued investigation of requested rate increases by the commission’s technical staff.
Deines said customers should actually receive better service and rates because decisions will be made closer to home. In addition, customers must be notified 10 days in advance of a board meeting where rates will be discussed and voted on. Cooperative members also have the right to request a KCC review of any rate change.
“You have a lot more say in the regulation of rates than you ever did under the commission,” Weinhold said.

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