On the Kansas side of Kansas City’s metropolitan area is Gardner, one of the poorest cities in Johnson County, according to Mayor Steve Shute. With an estimated population of just over 21,000 people, the largest employers are United School District No. 231 and the local Walmart.
“Gardner, which is on the southwest corner, it used to be a farm town until recently, does not have nearly the amount of per capita income that other parts of the county have had,” Shute said. “This shutdown has actually had a significantly greater impact on our world.”
Because of these limiting economic factors, Shute knew that when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in the middle of March, there was little he could do to help prop up the economy, even as residents, who travel to Kansas City and other suburbs for work, lost their jobs.
Fortunately for the people of Gardner, Shute and the city council were willing to think outside the box, focusing on the advantages the small, economically challenged city does have.
“We are the only municipality in Johnson County and one of the few in the state of Kansas that owns their electric utility,” Shute said. “We’ve had a very good, efficient operation of our electric utility for many years. As a result, we had built up a pretty significant fund balance in our electric development fund. The total was something north of $15 million in our fund.”
This gives Gardner the control and financial flexibility necessary to forgive all electricity bills. After the topic was discussed amongst the mayor, city council and the finance officer, a decision that was executed at the end of March, just a few weeks into the pandemic, to eliminate the April electricity bills, which cost the city about $100,000 in total revenue.
“We had a discussion because there had been some concerns from some folks in town that were getting absolutely hammered on their electric at the same time they were losing their jobs,” Shute said.
In several instances, residents had already been issued their April utility bill. This required the billing department to rebill all of those customers at $0.
This decision provided direct relief to the people of Gardner, who now had extra money for groceries. Businesses also received free electricity for 5,000 kilowatt-hours, which Shute said virtually eliminated the electricity bill for every small business.
Residents and businesses on an “even-pay” plan, which are those that make a flat payment for their electricity every month, also had their bills forgiven.
“We have several customers that their electric bills go up and down by season,” Shute said. “What we do is we set them up on what they call an even-pay plan. It spreads out those up-and-down payments so that you’re just paying a flat rate every month. We also call it budget billing.”
Another significant way Gardner is working to assist its residents is by having a police officer dedicated to responding to domestic violence calls.
“That’s the other piece, too,” Shute said. “The psychological toll that’s being dealt by the coronavirus is hurting a lot of our families, just because, you know, they’re cooped up in their houses, and some people, for example, might be in abusive relationships. They can’t get away from their abuser. We have taken the practice step of adding police department resources to be able to focus on and try to neutralize some of that.”
But Gardner almost wasn’t in such a great position to help its residents. Back in the mid-2000s, there was a discussion as to whether Gardner should sell its electric utility or not. Ultimately, the people in charge at the time decided to keep it, and Shute is glad they did.
That decision allowed Gardner to care for its residents in a way other cities could not.
“The best thing that we can do for our citizens is to be nimble and responsive,” he said. “What we did with their electricity bills is a demonstration of that. We are nimble; we were responsive. That’s one of the nice things about being a smaller community is that we can do that. We have a community spirit that is second to none out there. “We have a really tight-knit town. People know other people. They will respond at a moment’s notice to help out their fellow citizen here. That’s the embodiment of what I like to call ‘Gardner strong.’”