PITTSBURG — The Pittsburg City Commission on Tuesday approved two contracts related to a plan to create a public power utility for the city.
“The city commission wants to continue to explore the economic viability, benefits and risks of public power and outline the steps that will be necessary if a public power utility is to be established,” according to a Wednesday news release.
The discussion of the contracts with legal consultants Duncan & Allen and “client representative” GE Warren Associates at the Tuesday commission meeting, however, at times seemed more heated than portrayed in that release.
While the two contracts had the approval of four city commissioners, Commissioner Chuck Munsell voted in opposition to both. Munsell said during the meeting that he would like to make a motion for a voter referendum “before we proceed any further with the possibility of creating an electric utility,” although the idea was not supported by other commission members.
“For me, as a commissioner, before I want to make a decision on something, I want to hear all sides,” Munsell said, “and I know the city has a side, Westar has a side, businesses have an opinion and so do citizens.”
Munsell pointed out that, while Pittsburg’s city commission had previously heard a presentation about the city of Winter Park, Florida, and its electric utility municipalization, another Florida city, Vero Beach, recently “went completely the opposite direction” and sold its city-owned electric utility service back to Florida Power & Light Company. Munsell said the last city in Kansas to municipalize its electric service did so “in the 1900s.”
Munsell also said the City of Wichita spent $100,000 on a feasibility study for taking over providing power, before “a political climate change” prevented the plan from moving any further.
In response to Munsell’s concerns, City Manager Daron Hall said “the whole point of the contracts before you today is to sit down and have a logical discussion with Evergy about if this is possible, how it would work, what the price would be, how it would be stood up, how it would be powered, and so there’s variations on every one of those things,” adding that the city could not speak for Evergy.
“I definitely think that there will be a time to take this to the voters,” Hall said, but added that the city was “months if not years from getting into that level of detail with Evergy” to present such a plan to voters.
Mayor Patrick O’Bryan similarly noted that the commission was only voting to proceed with a study of possibly taking over electric service, and not with the actual process of municipalization.
“And going back to your first point, Chuck, that it hasn’t been done in however many years, so what?” O’Bryan asked.
“Exactly,” Munsell responded. “But my other point was, Patrick, that there are cities that have done this, and for whatever reason they’ve made a decision that they don’t want to do it anymore. That’s all I wanted, the information. And I think that could’ve been discussed in the meetings we had, what their reasoning was.”
In response Hall said Munsell was “asking for answers to questions that can’t possibly be answered right now,” adding that there were three other Kansas communities “that are very similar to our size that currently run their own electric utility, and there’s 115 other ones. This is not a new concept.”
Hall went on to say that “as far as the citizens go, I definitely think there are going to be milestones in this” where people will be able to have input on the ultimate decision about municipalization, adding that there were “walk away points” in the consultant contracts up for approval to allow the city to cancel them at relatively short notice.
The two contracts with Duncan & Allen and GE Warren Associates were both approved by a four to one vote, with commissioners O’Bryan, Dawn McNay, Sarah Chenoweth and Daniel McNally voting in favor, and Munsell opposed.
“Even if the result of the analysis shows that public power is not a feasible option, the information uncovered will still be valuable,” according to the city’s Wednesday release. “The City will then have the facts needed to make the best decision for the community, as well as potential alternative solutions and the negotiating advantage needed with the City’s electricity partner.”