The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance

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City Council, January 12

New Council Members sworn in
City can rebate franchise fee to the needy, but unlikely to do so
Marc Knapp

It was the first meeting of the year and as for reportable items, it was lean. The newly elected Council members were sworn in, and thereafter followed a host of resolutions and presentations. When it came to Council business, it was nearly all over.

On the podium with the Mayor last night were 4 Council members who were newly elected and 2 who were re-elected. All gave speeches – some short, some not so short and some too long. We liked Blake Hallman’s particularly. It was concise and delivered with warmth and sincerity. Council member Hallman was elected to the seat previously held by Debbie Morinelli who chose not to run again. Dan Reigel who won the seat previously held by Larry Shirley who chose not to run again, and Michael Seekings who won the seat previously held by Yvonne Evans, gave very long speeches. Those attending the meeting applauded, and laughed appropriately at the intended humor as Charlestonians are prone to do, at least out of politeness. But we thought do we really want a life history, or a litany on honor, commitment, .gratitude etc. that runs for more than 5 minutes. These newly elected members are probably as genuine as any Council member when expressing their sentiments, but repetition and a lengthy speech do not necessarily reinforce them.

OK, we’re unfair and too picky on the new members. But there is not much else to write about. And for the record, I have high respect and high hopes for all of the newly elected Council members. I think they are clear thinkers and will serve the City well. They impress me as independent, and acting according to the dictates of their conscience.

Meetings should be televised
Councilmember Gregorie took the opportunity in his speech to again ask for greater transparency in City government, something he feels will be achieved if all Council meetings are televised. We think transparency is a good thing, as is the broadcasting of City meetings. But we doubt that it would fly. Those citizens interested probably show up at Council meetings anyhow. We doubt too many others would have the patience to sit through, even in their own living rooms, the sometime endless presentations and resolutions, or the too often tenuous and long winded discussions about small issues. And who is going to pay for the broadcasting? It won’t be advertisers.

The needy could be given relief from higher utility Franchise Fee
The budget was not on last night's agenda, but Council member Gregorie indicated that all of the statements by the City’s administration should not be taken at face value. The Council member at previous meetings took exception to the City’s Franchise Fee on utility bills being raised from 3% to 5%. He wanted the needy to be excluded from the increase. He was told this was not possible. SCE&G was not obliged to do it nor would it – end of statement! But persevering and with assistance of staff, he learned that the City could reimburse these citizens if it chose to. He then asked, without success, that the previous meeting’s minutes be amended to show this.

The Mayor and staff were quick to point out the difficulties of reimbursement. Who was going to frame the rules for eligibility and administration? The implication was that the costs could be high. CFO Bedard pointed out that the 2010 budget had been framed and that the rebate could make a hole in the revenue projections. And as well, things were grim out there. It would be hard to plug any hole created by the reimbursements and the cost of administration.

We suspect the administration of the any rebate would be costly and negate the benefit from a City perspective. But we also are confused. The City gets paid the estimated amount arising from the total newly increased fee of 5% at the beginning of April, though SCE&G does not begin collecting the fee until the beginning of next year. So in effect, SCE&G is giving a loan to the City that is repaid out of the proceeds of future revenue flows to SCE&G arising from the franchise fee. And this loan is a factor in allowing the City to balance its budget for this year. There seems to be a method to SCE&G's madness. I can't believe any company would make such a disbursement without some major benefit on the bottom line. Would you? I have a feeling that the consumer is paying for it ultimately.

We understand that up-front payments from utilities and other service providers that are taxed are common place. This may be true, but it is strange.

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