Editorial: Utility Rate Study Committee probably won't solve high electric rates

The City of Clinton’s Utility Rate Advisory Committee – appointed last year by city council – met Jan. 23 for three hours to receive the utility rate study and met another three hours Monday night to consider what recommendations to make to city council regarding rates the city should charge to provide electricity and water, to collect and treat sewage and to collect garbage and debris. The 18 members on the committee represent elected officials (the mayor and two council members), city staff (four members), the city’s largest utility customers (three members), PMPA (the wholesale electric supplier, two members), the city planning commission (one member) and citizens of Clinton (five members). City staff will not vote on what the recommendations to council should be, leaving the decision-making to the “impartial” members of the committee. Of course, all the members are representing different constituents who might be looking for different outcomes as the committee’s work comes to an end. The discussion at the meetings – all open to the public – has been thoughtful, intelligent and frank. The citizen members, in particular, have pulled no punches in offering questions and opinions. We believe those five members, in particular, are trying to do something to help their fellow citizens – many of whom are struggling to pay the city’s high utility bills. The committee will make recommendations to council and it is the mayor and six council members who will decide what the city charges for utilities in the next five years covered in the rate study. A few things said in the Jan. 23 meeting deserve recognition and special attention. Steve Shurbutt, who presented the results of the rate study by DGS Associates, said his firm was charged with determining how much it cost the city to provide each of the four utilities. Secondly, he said, the consultants looked at whether the rates (and other fees) currently being charge are adequate to provide the services. Finally, DGS recommended what the rates should be for the next five years in order for the city to keep services at the current level. Not surprisingly, electricity is the city’s cash cow. If the electric utility didn’t have to give money to its utility “brothers,” electric rates could drop significantly. The goal of the study – and the stated goal of council for years – is to make each utility self-supporting. To do that, the study recommends significant increases in water rates, along with steady increases in sewer treatment charges and a jump in what the city charges to send trucks to houses to pick up garbage, leaves, limbs and debris (along with continued cash infusions from the general fund). That bring up the final truism from the Jan. 23 meeting. Mike Gower, one of the citizen representatives on the rate study committee, said it succinctly: lowering electric rates slightly while increasing the other rates isn’t going to do anything to help citizens who are struggling to pay their bills. The bottom line will be the same. If a customer’s bill is $600 now and you reduce electricity by $100 and raise water and sewer by $100, how is that customer helped? That’s been our contention all along and anyone who doesn’t recognize that is the bottom line fact is not paying attention. It will cost $23.3 million this year to fund the city’s utility system. Any adjustment to one rate will have to be offset by a similar adjustment to another rate. Some are advocating privatizing some or all utilities. We think that’s a bad idea. Private utility companies answer to owners and stockholders. A public utility, in theory, is owned by the public, the people who use the service every day. While the committee has worked hard and has spent hours on discussion and serious reflection, it’s unlikely any good will come of it. And the high utility bills will continue every month

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