PITTBSURG, Kan. — The Pittsburg City Commission voted Tuesday to officially prevent city staff from spending any additional money on consultants it contracted with last year to study the possibility of taking over providing electricity locally from power company Evergy.
Commissioner Chuck Munsell made the motion to halt further spending, which was seconded by Commissioner Cheryl Brooks and approved 4-1, with Commissioner Patrick O’Bryan opposed. Some in attendance pointed out, however, that the city has not spent any money on the effort since last year. Director of Finance Jamie Clarkson said at Tuesday’s meeting that no additional municipalization expenditures had been included in this year’s budget.
The city spent $143,000 on its municipalization study up until November of last year, when "the effort to municipalize ceased," according to Deputy City Manager Jay Byers, as noted in the official minutes of the Jan. 14 city commission meeting. Prior to last November, however, the city had been paying consultants hundreds of dollars per hour for their work on a municipalization feasibility study.
If the city wanted to go back to spending money on electric grid municipalization consultants it could potentially do so, but would now need official authorization from the commission.
Munsell said he made his motion because the results of last year’s election showed that Pittsburg voters were not in favor of the municipalization effort.
"That’s something the citizens overwhelmingly decided they didn’t want to pursue, and I think as commissioners we listen to what the citizens of Pittsburg want, so that’s why I made the motion to no longer pursue this," he said.
The city has more important priorities, Munsell said, such as building a new $40 million wastewater treatment plant.
"That’s something that we need to do for economic development. Our old plant needs to be replaced, so that’s going to be something that the citizens are going to have to pay for over a number of years, and I can support that," Munsell said, adding that he supports other city initiatives such as its street maintenance sales tax.
Munsell said he had heard from Byers that spending on the municipalization study stopped last year because of the holiday season, but Mayor Dawn McNay said she had heard something different.
"I heard that there was a recognition in terms of the support of the elected commission," McNay said.
"Well I guess we heard two different things because I sure didn’t hear that," Munsell said.
Commissioner O’Bryan said he had heard the same explanation from Byers that McNay did.
"I never heard him say it was squelched because of the holiday season," O’Bryan said. "You know we don’t shut down our business for the holiday season. Something this important goes on. It may subside during the holiday season, but it doesn’t go away because of the holiday season, it goes away for another issue."
Byers said in an email Wednesday that both the holiday season and the election, among other issues, had been reasons to discontinue the municipalization study in November.
"The issue of municipalization has arisen multiple times since November," Byers said. "The election, the holiday season, development activity and the pandemic have been cited as reasons why we haven’t moved forward. Creating a municipal electric utility is a major decision that requires the coordinated focus of City staff and elected officials. Based on conversations with our City Commission, there have been other priorities."
O’Bryan also questioned what Munsell had said about the city having to prioritize financing the new wastewater treatment plant over what he called "the electric company."
"The electric company is to make money," O’Bryan said. "It wasn’t a negative cash flow."
A controversial survey commissioned by Evergy last year — what City Manager Daron Hall called an "unscientific, obnoxious push poll" — suggested, however, that acquiring the local electric grid would cost Pittsburg over $100 million.
Hall questioned the usefulness of Munsell’s motion Tuesday.
"Are you telling me to not read articles on electricity?" Hall asked. "Because we’re going to go ahead and, you know, continue to provide service to the community on everything and a whole variety of things, but we have no plans to spend any money, nor can we spend any money that doesn’t come before you."
After further discussion, including comments from Munsell, O’Bryan, and Commissioner Larry Fields, Hall came up with clearer wording for a motion that specified that city staff would not spend additional money on the consulting team it contracted with last year.
"Is that fair? Because I think that gets to your point and I think that’s consistent with what we’re already doing," Hall said.
Munsell said the revised wording was acceptable, and the commission approved the motion.