A PR disaster at City Hall

Published 10:52 pm Thursday, December 11, 2008

During a season of giving and good will, city government is doing its best Grinch-like imitation with an effort to collect more than $200,000 from businesses and churches that the city says were underbilled for electricity usage over the past 2½ years.

At a time when City Hall was making strides toward developing a more business-friendly image, the electricity bills have created a public-relations nightmare for the City Council and for Franklin Power & Light.

Businesses that are struggling to remain viable in an economic recession now are faced with electricity bills of up to $8,000. Churches, whose efforts to feed, clothe and shelter the poor are more important than ever in this time of rising unemployment and mortgage foreclosures, stand to see valuable dollars diverted to city coffers.

Whether the city has a fiduciary and legal responsibility to collect the money is debatable. As one of the 55 affected Franklin Power & Light customers, this newspaper won’t opine on the fairness of the city’s action.

If it’s the city’s position that it has no choice legally but to collect the money, it should make that case — citing specific language in the applicable statutes — to the affected utility customers and to the citizens at large. If the city had a choice to forgive the “debt” and made a decision to collect it anyway, the City Council needs to say so and take responsibility. Better yet, it should seek the input of its new Business Friendly Committee on the wisdom of that decision.

Most important, the council needs to bring its deliberations out of the back rooms and into the full view of the public. The council’s only real discussion of the matter to date was behind closed doors – a big step back for a council that has touted its commitment to transparency and openness.