Higher bills on the horizon

The spike in electric and natural gas usage during the recent cold snap is likely to translate to rate increases for Iola residents.

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February 26, 2021 - 2:38 PM

Entrance to the City of Iola’s power generation facility. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

Steel yourself. Higher energy bills are on the way.

With the recent spike in electric and natural gas usage due to wintry weather, it’s likely that electrical rate increases will follow suit for Iola residents.

“We are seeing an extremely high jump in usage,” confirmed city clerk Roxanne Hutton. (For example, one resident who used 27 units of energy in January, used 32 in February. The rest of the year, they average 7 British Thermal Units.)

Increased rate hikes go hand-in-hand with increased usage, Hutton said. “We’re not sure how bad it’s going to end up.”

“We are waiting on our electric bill from the Southwest Power Pool,” Hutton said, “to know exactly what was charged for consumption during those peak times.”

Iola should receive said bill by week’s end. Hutton calculated residents should be aware of any rate increases by the second week of March.

Warsila generators west of Iola at the city’s power generation facility. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

Corey Schinstock, interim city administrator, said, “We know it’s gonna come in high, just based on the market alone. … It’s the dollar amount we don’t know.”

One thing Iola had working in its favor going into the extreme weather was purchasing natural gas in advance of needing it.

“Not expecting the colder temperatures, we’d already brought in gas for the winter,” Hutton said.

That’s a standard practice for the city, which has natural gas stored in multiple locations “ranging from Kansas to Oklahoma and Nebraska,” and is transported via pipeline, said Schinstock.

Even with the high usage, the city was not in danger of running out.

“We had plenty of days left,” he said. 

“We’ve got around 47,000 (BTUs) still in storage. We used less than half our storage,” he said. “We’re in good shape still.”

Regarding electricity, “we generated as much as we could.”

Schinstock agreed, but pointed out that the city’s generators do not typically run in winter, and so have been plagued with mechanical problems.

“You have issues with them gelling up,” he said. The diesel fuel becomes so cold that it no longer flows properly.

And the city’s two massive Wartsila generators are gas turbines, so could not have been made operational.

Downtime, of course, means less power, and the city has no other means to generate energy beyond its gas turbines or diesel units.

Generators south of Iola near Lake Bassola. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

That somewhat less electrical energy than possible was generated is unfortunate, since as Hutton pointed out, “we are concerned because we heard that our electric [rates] could be extremely high.”

On the other hand, “we are fortunate we have some reserves in the electric fund for if we do get hit with a higher bill,” she added, which is good news for both the city and residents.

Concerning the city as well, “we should have enough reserves to pay the extra usage and the higher cost.”

Schinstock agreed that the city should have no trouble footing its own portion of the bills, rather than passing them on to consumers.

Regarding the higher costs to residents, “we know it can be a burden,” said Hutton. “We are very aware our customers may struggle with the costs.”

At the same time, “we aren’t passing on to customers bills that aren’t feasible,” she added.

“We try and do the best we can.”

“Municipalities aren’t out to make the big dollars,” Schinstock added. “We’re here for the citizens, but you still have to cover your costs.”

In terms of a plan moving forward to help folks to manage their utility bills, Schinstock said, “I would assume the desire of the city council would be not to just send a bill to a consumer or a resident for the full amount of the bill.”

For example, “the city might stretch your bill out,” he said. “if it’s $500 higher than your normal bill, my hope is we can figure out a good method for people to pay an extra $100 a month for six months, to pay those bills off. But that’s just me thinking outside the box.”

Put another way, “we’re going to have to get a method,” he said, “have a plan in place before we hammer people and say, ‘Here’s what your bill is.’”

Whatever plan that’s enacted will likely be influenced by Iola’s new city administrator, who’s expected to take the helm next week.

All told, Schinstock said “we’re going to try to make it as right as we can for our residents, make it as little impactful as possible.”

Want to help lessen that impact, either for others or yourself?

One option is the Community Utility Relief Board (CURB) program, which you can participate in every time you pay your City of Iola utility bill.

Simply fill out the form at the City of Iola office saying that you’d like to participate, and you can do so in a couple different ways.

You can designate a set amount to be donated each month, say, $10, or you can “round up” on your own utility payment each month (maximum 99 cents), and the extra will go to help someone in need. (The city also accepts direct donations, but they are not tax-deductible.)

If you’re requiring assistance yourself, contact the Wesley Methodist Church at 301 E. Madison in Iola, Monday through Thursday, between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. This is how CURB funds are distributed.

You can also help others with utility payments by donating to Humanity House, located at 110 East St. in Iola, or to Wesley United Methodist and designate the funds to CURB.

The nonprofits will make sure that your contribution helps keep the lights on for someone and/or their family.

To learn more, or to seek utility relief yourself, call 620-380-6664, or stop by the Humanity House office.

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