PITTSBURG — Earlier this week, many Pittsburg residents received text messages and robocalls asking them to complete a survey about the city government’s performance and its potential plans to create its own electric utility. After the survey was discussed at Tuesday’s city commission meeting, Pittsburg City Manager Daron Hall and Deputy City Manager Jay Byers met with executives from Evergy (formerly Westar) on Wednesday and learned that the power company was behind the poll.
“We just wanted to make sure that we were on the right track with them, to kind of touch base about how we’re going to proceed in the future,” Byers said.
“We were a little concerned, we weren’t sure that, you know, they were 100 percent committed to working with us. Particularly after the survey came out we were like ‘What is that all about?’”
At Tuesday’s city commission meeting, Commissioner Dan McNally brought up the survey and said that if the city’s study of creating a municipal electric utility finds that the plan would be a good idea for Pittsburg, he would support having a public vote on the issue.
“I’m in a wait-and-see mode,” McNally said. “I’m not pro-Westar, I’m not pro-City. We are just gathering information at this point, and if that time comes, and we decide that, my personal position would be that I would support a public vote on that.”
Commissioner Chuck Munsell also said he would be in favor of having a public vote.
On Thursday, Byers said it is likely that if the city’s study eventually recommends moving forward with the municipalization plan, it will also have to pass a public vote.
“The funding is going to be a pretty substantial piece of funding that’s going to go along with this, and in most scenarios that we’ve looked at, we will likely have to go to the public for the funding,” Byers said, “so it’s very likely that there will be a public vote at some point.”
Byers said the discussion Wednesday with Evergy President and CEO Terry Bassham and one of the company’s vice presidents, Jeff Martin, was cordial and professional, and the company admitted it was behind the survey, the origin of which was not clear on Tuesday.
“They said that they often survey their customers,” Byers said, “so they appeared to take responsibility for it.”
Byers said he had concerns about the survey.
“I have a master’s degree in public policy, and one of the things we study there is survey, you know, design,” he said. “And if you’re interested in, you know, getting information, you have to characterize your questions in a certain way. You just have to be careful about those sorts of things. And when the questions appear to be designed to elicit a specific response, it’s concerning. The other issue, of course, is that there were specific questions that really had nothing to do with Westar’s business, it was questions about the city manager, questions about city commissioners and would you vote for them, so there seemed to be an interest in engaging in local politics, which is a little concerning to us,” Byers said.
“I think in general it’s a concern when a large company, a $15 billion company, starts injecting themselves into your community,” Byers said.
Reached for comment Thursday, an Evergy representative said the company did not view the survey as problematic.
“The survey was completed by a well-known and highly respected national research firm,” Corporate Communications Specialist Kaley Bohlen wrote in an email. “Given the responses to the survey, we have seen nothing that would indicate those surveyed thought it was inappropriate. Our CEO and City Manager Hall met on Wednesday and we thought it was a friendly, professional and productive meeting. We remain committed to working with the City of Pittsburg as they evaluate their options.”
Byers said the city’s process of studying whether taking over providing electricity is a good idea for Pittsburg to move forward with is continuing, but is still far from complete.
“There’s three basic pieces of information that we need to have to really be able to make a decision whether to move forward,” he said. “We need to know how much it’s going to cost to acquire the grid. How much would that cost? We need to know how much it would cost to separate the two systems, so if we create a system for the city, that system has to be able to operate independently from the system that surrounds us that’s controlled by Westar, or Evergy, so there’s some technical work that needs to be done and there’s some costs associated with doing that. And the final thing, is how much would it cost for us to purchase power?”
Byers said the city is working on answering those three questions.
“And if we know the answer to those three numbers, then we can really make a recommendation to the city commission, and then we can have a more open conversation about reality, you know,” he said. “What is it really going to cost us and can we afford this, you know, that kind of thing. Because we’ll have to borrow money to do this, because it will be, you know, tens of millions of dollars. So if we have to do that, then we’ll have to pay the debt service on it, so can the revenues from the utility pay for the debt service as well as the cost of operating the utility, so we don’t know those answers yet. So we’re still working on that.”
Byers and Pittsburg Public Information Manager Sarah Runyon said the city has begun some work on a campaign that the city commission recently approved a $30,000 budget for “for the creation and delivery of educational material” about its municipalization study.
That campaign will involve sending out information by mail and making short videos that will be posted to the city’s website. It will likely not involve television commercials, but may include radio ads, Byers and Runyon said.
“We would like to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to get exposed to these basic concepts that we’re talking about here,” Byers said.
Although Byers said municipalization would likely cost “tens of millions of dollars,” he said one particularly concerning question on the Evergy survey was one that mentioned a cost of more than $100 million.
“If you knew that it will cost the City of Pittsburg between $130 to $150 million to create a municipal electric utility, would you be more likely to support or less likely to support the City of Pittsburg creating its own electric utility?” the survey asked.
Byers said the city does not yet know if municipalization would cost that much. He also reiterated that the city cannot yet say whether proceeding with creating its own electric utility will eventually prove to be an idea that city staff will recommend to the commission.
“I’m the lead at the city on this project,” Byers said. “I cannot honestly take it to the commission and say it’s a good idea, I can’t do that yet. I don’t know enough information. So we’re still trying to find out whether it’s a good idea. We certainly have some early indications that it is a good idea, but we absolutely don’t know enough at this point.”