Talking electricity

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 17, 2007

The upcoming retirement of one of this city’s outstanding public servants, veteran electrical department manager Dave Howe, puts city government at a critical crossroads in the management of its utility services.

Franklin officials would be wise to heed the advice of a citizens group that advocates a thorough re-examination of the Power & Light Department, including its rate structure, its financial management and its proper relationship with city government.

By treating the electrical department as a cash cow that has subsidized the city’s general fund to the tune of $2 million a year since the mid-1990s, the City Council has propped up electrical rates for its citizens, tapped crucial rainy-day funds that would cover emergency repairs or upgrades to the city’s electrical infrastructure, and failed to get its arms around an overspending problem that annually sees the city dish out more tax dollars than it collects from non-electrical sources.

In other words, all of the theoretical advantages of municipal-owned electricity service - namely, low rates and first-class, modern infrastructure - have become liabilities in the City of Franklin.

Howe tried to get the City Council to address the utility service’s long-range future a year ago, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Hopefully, the council will pay more attention to an ad hoc citizens group - consisting of Union Camp retirees Chuck Lilley and George Weidmann, certified public accountant Benny Burgess and stockbroker Norwood Boyd - that is raising some pertinent and timely questions:

n Should the annual transfer of 20 percent of electricity revenues be reduced significantly, with this money either reinvested in the utility or returned to citizens in the form of lower rates?

n Should the electric department have its own board of commissioners, appointed by the City Council, that controls the department’s purse strings and hires and fires the utility manager? Or should the city go a step further and create an even more autonomous state-chartered authority to manage electricity service?

n Can a disciplined City Council reduce spending enough that property taxes do not go through the roof when electricity revenues are redirected to their proper usage?

We commend the citizens group for posing these important questions - and challenge the City Council to take them seriously.