WICHITA, Kan. (KAKE) - Some Kansans are seeing their utility bills jump this month, 5, 6 even 7 times the amount they usually pay.  And it's happening to those who can least afford to pay their bills.

They asked us what was going on. So KAKE News Investigates dug up some answers, though not all. The state says this all boils down to a billing error that's hitting Kansans who got help from the Low-income Energy Assistance Program or LiEAP.

"I was opening up my Evergy bill," Heather Larsen said. "And found an interesting amount on there. There was an extra $255."

Heather says her electricity bill is usually around $40 a month, but her latest bill is for almost $300.

"The only thing on my bill was it said 'Balance Transfer,' and I didn't know where I would have a balance transfer from," she said.  "Evergy told me it came from when I was a LiEAP recipient in 2021."

"They told me I didn't use all of the money that year, so they were transferring my unused balance, back."

What she doesn't understand is why she has to pay back the money the government gave to Evergy, money she never saw or handled personally.

A former social worker, Heather had experience with LiEAP - even though her first usage came after a protracted fight with COVID in 2021 that left her unemployed.

"I used to sign people up for the LiEAP program," she said. "And I've never actually seen this happen."

We called the Department of Children and Families (DCF) which handles the LiEAP applications. A spokesman told our investigator, the federal government has always taken back any unused LiEAP funds at the end of the year.  But this year customers are seeing it, because of a billing error of some sort. Because the error was over at Evergy, the DCF spokesman didn't have any details about what went wrong.  

So we called Evergy.

After sharing Heather's bill and her questions with the company, we got this statement.

"In 2021 Ms. Larson applied for and received utility payment assistance from the State of Kansas toward her account that, per Kansas rules, had to be used by September 2022. At the end of September, the customer still had credit from the payment assistance on her account which caused her to show a credit balance for the rest of the year. The “Other transactions” item on her January bill reflects the amount of payment assistance that was unused as of September and must be repaid back to the state. Evergy is reaching out to the customer to see if she would like to apply for assistance benefits again and to offer a payment plan toward this balance due."

The statement from Evergy left us with more questions than answers. So we asked again, more specifically. We're still waiting for Evergy's response.  We'll bring it to you when we get it.

Heather says she did get that call, but it still didn't answer her questions.  Employed again, she's not worried about the cost of this month's bill.

"Fortunately I can take the hit. $255 isn't going to break me."

She's worried about others who can't afford it. 

"This is going to affect the people that LiEAP is supposed to be helping. It's actually going to end up harming them," she said.

Evergy provided more answers to our questions - saying when customers are approved for LiEAP funds, they have until the end of September of the following year to use the funds for energy bills.

Any unused funds are supposed to return to LiEAP.

In this case, Evergy continued to apply Larson's grant money to her bills through December instead of returning the money to the federal program. Now, Evergy says Larson owes the company for those three months worth of bills and has offered her a payment program.