Hear out citizens group

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 28, 2007

In this era of declining civic involvement, the work of an ad hoc citizens group in Franklin merits commendation.

Union Camp retirees Chuck Lilley and George Weidmann, certified public accountant Benny Burgess, businessman Ellis Crumb, former City Councilman Kent Pope and stockbroker Norwood Boyd have undertaken an in-depth analysis of the city’s electric utility. They will present their findings to the City Council during a work session at 7 p.m. Monday at City Hall.

Digging into the minutiae of utility administration and organization is tedious - and, to the casual observer, boring - work. It can be motivated only by love of one’s hometown and concern for its future. Lest anyone assign ulterior motives to these men, consider that they are all professionally and financially successful citizens who have little to gain from sticking their necks out on a politically sensitive topic. Conversely, there can be plenty to lose by challenging the traditional power structure.

The volunteer group is willing to take that risk because of profound concerns about the electric department, its future viability and its impact on both taxpayers and ratepayers.

Among the topics of discussion Monday night will be the feasibility of a more independent municipal utility with an operating board that determines its own fiscal policies. That would likely mean a substantial reduction in the amount of electricity revenue that is transferred into the city’s general fund. Those savings would result in lower light bills for Franklin residents and more money to spend on upgrading the utility’s infrastructure.

The plan would make economic sense only with a corresponding commitment from the City Council to reduce general-fund spending. Raising property taxes to cover the shortfall caused by the loss of electricity revenue would simply shift from renters to homeowners the burden of funding city services. That’s not acceptable.

The citizens group has done extensive research on municipal utilities, including a visit to Manassas, where the city electric system operates very successfully with its own governing board. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Mesa, Ariz., where an electric system akin to Franklin’s is a physical and fiscal wreck.

Monday night’s presentation should be fact-filled and enlightening. City Council work sessions are open to the public. The citizens group deserves the community’s ear on this important topic.

Steve Stewart is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.