A holiday downer

Published 9:05 pm Friday, December 5, 2008

As Scrooges go, Taylor Williams is a hard guy to hate.

Franklin’s affable city attorney — and all-around good guy — came to my office this week bearing bad news: that, due to a data-entry clerk’s error, the newspaper owes more than $7,000 in underbilled electricity charges since June 2006. Fifty or so other businesses and churches, collectively owing about $200,000, got similar letters.

I shared Williams’ correspondence with my fellow Tidewater Publications stockholders by e-mail. The subject line: “Merry Christmas from the City of Franklin.”

A few thoughts:

■ The city, best I can determine, is well within its legal rights to collect the money.

■ As a messenger who’s been shot more times than I can count over the years, I have no beefs with Williams, who was doing his job. He was polite and apologetic.

■ Government at all levels operates in a way that’s foreign to me as a business owner and as a citizen.

Out here in the free market, we make mistakes, we take responsibility for them, and we shield our customers from any consequences. What’s legally justifiable isn’t always the right course. In fact, it rarely is.

If I were to discover, for example, that the newspaper underbilled a customer for advertising that was published two years ago, I’d never dream of sending him a bill. In a free-market economy, that’s a fast way to kill a relationship with a client and do long-range harm to my business.

Government, as a monopolistic provider of many services, doesn’t have to worry about consequences. I can either pay the $7,000 or figure out a way to run my printing press without electricity.

The City of Franklin’s idea of generosity was to give the newspaper and other affected customers 24 interest-free months to pay the back charges. I’m grateful. My employees will get Christmas bonuses, which would have been at risk had the city insisted on immediate payment. There still will be consequences, but they won’t be as drastic.

Should we and the other affected customers have to pay the back charges at all? I’ll leave that to more objective observers to ponder.

It would be a worthy topic of discussion for the city’s new Business Friendly Committee.

Is the city’s action legal? I trust Taylor Williams when he says yes.

Is it fair? I’m too biased, as the holder of a $7,000 bill, to opine with credibility.

Business friendly? Hardly.