Humboldt sees similar utility challenges

Natural gas prices are higher and usage has increased because of cold weather.

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February 1, 2023 - 2:13 PM

A weeklong cold wave in February sparked an energy crisis which drove the price of natural gas to 200 times its price a few days before. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

HUMBOLDT — Residents of the county’s second-largest city also have noticed higher utility bills, even though the city handles its utilities a little differently than Iola, Cole Herder, Humboldt’s city administrator, said.

The city charges for water, sewer, trash and natural gas. While Iola has the ability to generate its own electricity, Humboldt relies on Evergy for its electric.

Rates have not changed this year for water, sewer or trash, but natural gas is different. The city is part of the Kansas Municipal Gas Association, which purchases and stores the gas on Humboldt’s behalf. Rates vary depending on a number of factors, such as what the price was when it was purchased along with a daily rate. 

Currently, the price charged to Humboldt for natural gas is between 30% to 50% more than it was a year ago. 

Part of that is attributed to a spike in prices both from a cold snap two years ago as well as higher prices over the summer. Typically, prices are lower in the summer. 

“There was a bit of panic in the summer. The amount of natural gas in the Midwest was decreasing when it should have been increasing, because natural gas was being shipped to Europe and South America for a significantly higher price,” Herder said. “We paid a higher price for gas that was in storage, so when it comes back out we have to bill customers at a higher rate.”

Humboldt offers a “level pay” program that allows qualified customers to pay an average monthly amount instead of facing peaks and lows as usage varies. Those who are interested should contact the city to see if they qualify. 

“You have to plan ahead,” Herder said. “It’s not something you can just jump on.”

The city will offer payment arrangements only in hardship cases. Herder said staff try to work with customers who face life-changing events or exceptionally high bills, but said it’s a balancing act. The city tries to minimize disconnections when possible, he said, which may be easier in a smaller city. 

“Our clerks bend over backwards to reach out to people and try to make it work. If there’s a good-faith effort to get it paid, we’re OK with that,” he said. 

“But if someone is having trouble paying this month’s bill, how will they pay the next one? That past due number can grow very fast. If we go too long, we’re enabling that problem and it puts the person in a very difficult position to pay it back. Sometimes they move and the rest of the taxpayers have to cover that cost.

“I owe it to other customers to make sure the bills get paid, but at the same token, I have empathy for what can happen in life.”

FOR THOSE who are struggling, the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP) is one resource. Half of the benefit goes to the city to offset natural gas fees; the other half goes to Evergy for electric services. 

The Ministerial Alliance also offers utility assistance for those in need in the form of a one-time payment each  year. 

Sometimes, Herder said, the community will come together to help each other.

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