Citizens Against High Utility Bills plan protest rally

Published 12:59 pm Saturday, June 8, 2013

FRANKLIN—The Citizens Against High Utility Bills met Thursday night and called for several actions, including a rally to be held Monday night at city hall before the City Council meeting.

The Citizens group has said the protest rally planned for Monday night is because of unresolved issues surrounding high utility bills with “the latest cause for protest attributed to the city manager transferring electric department profit (revenue) to the general fund and treating the transfer as an expense.”

Dr. Linwood Johnson, spokesperson for the Citizens group confirmed that a rally is planned for 5 p.m. Monday at City Hall; prior to a council meeting at 7 p.m. City officials have also confirmed that a permit for a gathering has been issued.

When asked about the charge about the city manager transferring electric department money to the general fund, City Manager Randy Martin explained that the city does transfer money annually and has for decades. He said he does not have the authority to transfer funds, only city council does and added that the amount authorized by council is lower now that it has been in past years. Martin explained that approximately $1.4 million is moved over annually to “keep the tax rate down.” He further noted that if such transfers were stopped, then an increase in the tax rate would have to occur to compensate to the tune of 24 to 25 cents per $100. He added that council looks at that transfer during the budget process annually.

Linwood Johnson also confirms that the Citizens group has found candidates to run against incumbent council members in the next city council election. Johnson said they had found “people of interest” to look at running for Ward 3 and 5 seats, currently held by Greg Mclemore and Mary Hilliard and possibly Ward 6, currently held by Donald Blythe. But Johnson said, “We have great respect for him (Blythe)” and would not oppose him if he chooses to run again.

Another concern the Citizens group has is possibly seeking legal actions against the City for the way it responded to Freedom of Information requests. Johnson said, “We are looking at investigating that issue.” Johnson and the group is taking issue against the invoices the city sent when providing the documents requested from citizens. He said eight individuals asked questions in writing about electric problems related to their individual households. “Without allowing us to review the information – it was sent to us. An individual is allowed to review the information before receiving it but everything was processed and sent with a bill.” He insists that is not the way to respond to a FOIA request.

Martin says the city complied with the FOIA requests according to the law. He said if a request for records is made in writing, the city is obligated to respond, which it did. “We did it in the required time table and responded in writing to each and sent it to them with an invoice for the lowest cost allowed under the statute for the printing costs and clerical staff time.”

He added, “None of them have paid it.”

He explained that it took a lot of time to provide the documents requested under the FOIA, including blocking out personal billing information. “It was time consuming,” he said.

Johnson had made a further FOIA request on behalf of the entire group, but when he was informed by the city that his request would cost upwards of $200, he has put that request on hold for the time being, saying he got the information he needed in another way.

Martin says in recent months power usage has been significantly lower and citizen bills have reflected that. He indicated he hasn’t had anyone come in recently in regard to the high bills; just people who are in arrears and need help catching up.

He feels, “Customers are much more aware in how much energy they use.” He said he is glad to keep giving tips to lower usage and send people to the correct agencies to get assistance. “The city, through different agencies in the community, gave well over $300,000 in assistance this year. We will continue to help people who qualify with cooling and heating assistance.”