Pawhuska residents fume over high utility bills

Mike Erwin

Stoked by social media and motivated to find a sympathetic ear from Tulsa television news’ responders, disgruntled utility customers of Pawhuska began publicly expressing outrage over their skyrocketing utility bills last week.

Several local residents revealed July billing amounts which were two or three times higher than they had been in June.

While often disregarding factors like late-payment charges, power cost adjustments, and unrelated fees, the complaining ratepayers accused the city of price gouging, adding Cavalcade rodeo costs on their bills — and worse.

Pawhuska City Manager Michael McCartney said his July utility bill was also double over what it had been in June. He attributed the increased billings almost solely to this year’s inordinately hot weather.

“I’m sure we might find there have been a few misreadings on our part — and those will be corrected,” McCartney said. “But, I think a lot of the complaints are totally unjustified.”

He insisted that there was no conspiracy involved in the matter, while adding that all of the billing claims were being checked into.

“Some of these people are failing to mention that they’re not just talking about there electric bill,” he said. “They also aren’t considering late charges and other fees like water, sewer, sanitation, hospital, etc.”

McCartney took exception with the oft-expressed theory that the increased July billings are an annual local for paying for the costs of the weeklong Cavalcade rodeo.

“Cavalcade has been going on for 70 years and I think that claim has been being made for about 69 of them,” the city manager said.

Jeff Bute, who has been Cavalcade chairman for the past 11 years, said he is sure the rodeo committee is paying the same electric rates as everyone else.

“For just that 10-day period in July, our bill averages between $12,000 and $15,000,” Bute said.

Hundreds of the amateur rodeo’s contestants spend the entire week camping at the Osage County Fairgrounds (as well as the privately-owned Biker Park across the street.). As Bute explained: “We put a city in a city.”

As to the allegations about electric bills being used to cover the event’s costs, Bute said: “We’ve been blamed for July’s high water and electric bills for years.”

“Our whole goal is to make sure Pawhuska businesses and services prosper as a result of what we’re doing, not the opposite,” Bute added.

Ward 2 Pawhuska City Council member Steven Holcombe responded to resident concerns about the utility bills by calling for city to schedule a hearing of public comments on the issue as part of the council’s Sept. 6 meeting.

Holcolme indicated that he had sent emails to the city manager, as well as Mayor Mark Buchanan.

For more than a year, longtime resident Harold Huffman has been trying to convince local officials to suspend a power cost adjustment that has been included on utility bills “at least while gas prices and fuel costs are down.”

“They added that fuel adjustment when fuel costs were way higher than they are now,” Huffman said.

On several occasions, Huffman has attempted to discuss the power cost adjustment charge with city officials. Each time, their responses have seemed to defy logic, he said.

“It’s outrageous,” Huffman said. “That fuel adjustment adds up to a whole lot of money, but nobody seems to know where it’s going or what it’s being used for.”

Officials with the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority, which sets the power cost adjustment, said the amount is based on the cost for producing the electric power rather than fuel costs.

Another allegation about the utility bill increases claimed the city of Pawhuska had purchased an excessive amount of electricity from OMPA and was passing the cost on to its customers. That theory was dispelled when OMPA pointed out that its agreement stipulates that such an overpurchased electricity may be sold back to the company.