The Examiner Editorial - March 23, 2019
The Independence City Council this week passed on a good opportunity to save millions of dollars over the next several years. That will affect electric ratepayers for years to come.
And it’s just one of several dominoes.
The council, after roughly four years of study, deliberation and delay – and roughly $500,000 in consultant fees – could not muster enough votes for either of two competing contracts for what are called “smart meters.”
At its root, this is straightforward. Updated technology that has become the industry standard saves on paying meter readers, and it gives consumers more information on their electric and water usage, potentially helping to save on the consumption and cost of each. All homes and businesses in the Kansas City area outside Independence have this. Independence Power & Light is behind the curve.
But despite a clear recommendation from staff and the Public Utilities Advisory Board, the council said no. Some fretted about the loss of jobs – a manageable problem as the program would be phased in. Some doubted the actual savings, an estimated $30 million over 15 years. That’s perhaps understandable but leads to an obvious question: Do you trust staff and vendors to know their stuff and get it right or not?
Perhaps someday the council will let this come up again. Let’s hope so.
But other major issues loom.
The city is still in an extended discussion about closing the seldom-used Blue Valley power plant on Truman Road. IPL is part of the Southwest Power Pool, which means ratepayers get the benefit of the cheapest power available on any given day. IPL has an obligation to have power ready for the pool, so the Blue Valley plant cannot be closed immediately – but the city has identified new power sources that would fill the gap.
The city needs to make a decision and move on.
That’s because a yet larger issue needs attention: IPL’s rates are too high and too complex. They are hurting the city’s ability to attract business and jobs.
The council in late 2018 approved a small rate cut – a down payment, really – with the intent of following up with more. That’s a welcome move. But a cost-of-service study due last fall still isn’t done. City Hall says it’ll come out this spring. Each delay erodes the community’s ability to move forward.
The people at IndyEnergy, a local citizen group, have raised any number of good points on these complex and costly issues. (IndyEnergy has public forum at 10:30 a.m. April 6 at the North Independence library, and The Examiner has a couple of informative Facebook Live conversations with IndyEnergy archived on our Facebook page.)
IndyEnergy asks this politically touchy question: Given the complexity of the issues and the ease with which things can become politicized, as we have seen time and again, is having the City Council sit as the board of directors for IPL really the best governance structure? Are there ways to have professional management an arm’s length away from politics while pursuing the city’s stated goals of reliable energy, green-and-getting-greener energy and competitive rates?
That would of course be a contentious conversation. The voters would have to change the City Charter – no small thing. But the council this week couldn’t even pull the trigger on smart meters, and each punted decision means more foregone opportunities and a tougher, more complex job of tackling rates. Maybe there’s a better way to do this.