PITTSBURG — Westar Energy hosted an informational breakfast Friday, after the City of Pittsburg distributed a request for proposal to do a feasibility study on alternative ways to provide electricity.
Westar used the opportunity to highlight its projects in the community, customer service and possible merger, as well as answer questions from the public. Many questions revolved around the City of Pittsburg’s decision to send out a request for proposal searching for a contractor to complete a feasibility study — looking into the feasibility of providing electricity to the city through other means than Westar.
“We are in the infancy of this process,” Pittsburg City Commissioner Dawn McNay said at the Friday meeting.
City Manager Daron Hall agreed. According to Hall, a when bids are sent back for the feasibility study — and if a bid is approved to actually move forward with the study — the soonest it would start is June. After that, the study could take up to a year, plus more time for discussion of options, negotiations, approvals.
However, some citizens are already worried about what changes may happen years from now if the city decided to become a municipal provider. Attendants at the meeting asked about possible problems, costs and if Westar would keep its service center in Pittsburg.
“State Law requires that we go through a process to negotiate the sale of our system to a municipality, if the city would decide to do that,” Westar Regional Manager of Operations RJ Jubber said. “As the energy provider, we plan to keep our service center here as long as possible, but if we were to sell our system, we would likely move out to be more centered to our customers.”
If the city became a municipal utility provider, it would take over maintenance of the system, correcting outages, reading meters and more — but would also have another source of revenue outside of sales and property taxes.
Jubber said the city would have to upgrade to utilize Westar’s smart meters, or return to mechanical meters.
But Hall reiterated that those kind of changes — were they to even happen — are years away.
“This entire effort is just to gain information, we are a long way from any changes — if we even make any,” Hall said. “We could not do the study, or the study could come back and say ‘Westar is your best option’ and nothing will change.”
But he also said looking at all options is just good practice.
“From 2014 to 2015, the rates for the city government buildings went up 28 percent, and that’s all tax money,” Hall said. “So when you look at it, you start realizing what you need is more information, and that’s all we’re doing right now.”
During the meeting, Westar discussed recent projects in Pittsburg and Crawford County. Including improvements to its transmission line along U.S. Highway 69 and through Pittsburg, and the building of a wall around the 4th and Joplin substation.
“Westar has done some good stuff for the city,” Hall said. “They installed that really nice wall, they’ve helped us with our trail system and more.”
Westar also discussed its possible merger with Great Plains Energy — owner of Kansas City Power and Light Company — and answered questions about what effects it could have. Jubber said they began looking at the merger because Great Plains and KCP&L have similar values to Westar, especially when it comes to customer service.
“The increase in cost from our overhead just isn’t sustainable,” Jubber said. “So rather than wait and see what company came through and gobbled us up, we started looking at our neighbor with similar values to see how we can work together.”
Westar Vice President of Customer Relations Chad Luce said the merger could also stabilize rates.
“Rates are increasing at a rate that is not sustainable as well,” Luce said. “That was the reason for our last merger, when we combined with Topeka and Wichita. After that, rates were flat for 12 years. I can’t say that will happen again, but it may stabilize.”
Westar Regional Business Manager Kari West said Westar wants to stay in Pittsburg.
— Chance Hoener is a staff writer for the Morning Sun. He can be emailed at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @ReporterChance.