Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

CURB Prepares for Complex Westar Acquisition

Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

CURB Prepares for Complex Westar Acquisition

Article excerpt

The Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board is tasked by the Kansas Legislature with standing up for residential and small-business ratepayers in utility cases that come before the Kansas Corporation Commission, and the Great Plains Energy acquisition of Westar Energy may burden the agency's budget.

This year, CURB's staff of five faces the challenge of preparing testimony, hiring consultants and fulfilling that watchdog role in Great Plains Energy's proposed acquisition of Westar Energy.

"This is really huge," said David Nickel, consumer counsel at CURB. "This is $12.2 billion. It represents a fairly sizeable acquisition premium on Westar stock, collared, to some extent, but it's still a lot of money."

More important than the dollars, he said, is the potential impact on consumers, which is one of the standards CURB staff will study.

A challenge created for CURB by such a time-consuming case will be budgetary, and Nickel said he's concerned the fiscal year 2017 budget won't support the necessary expenditures to cover all the cases in which CURB must intervene.

"We hire consultants to help us out, because we don't have the staff to do that," Nickel said.

In fiscal year 2014, consultant fees were more than $237,000, but in FY 2015, those costs were nearly $400,000, according to the Kansas Division of the Budget's online information about CURB.

CURB is funded by the Utility Regulatory Fee Fund, which is funded through a quarterly assessment on gas, electric and telephone companies in Kansas, and also through an assessment that is made for actual costs incurred by CURB during an investigation of a particular public utility, the budget office reports.

That variation in contractual costs from year to year concerns Nickel, who started the job as CURB consumer counsel in March, as he faces costs that may be higher than expected for FY 2017, which is when the Westar/Great Plains case will be in front of the KCC.

"It will cover what we've got for this case, but it really kind of leaves us in a hole if there are a lot of additional cases," he said of his consultant budget. …

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