Recently, the Citizens Advisory Committee for Utilities was becoming a lively bunch. The proposed increase in electric rates had put members of this newly reactivated board front and center. There meetings were even drawing attention from the print and broadcast media.
A recent presentation to the group by the COT utility rate consultant, who calculated the need for millions of dollars in rate increases, resulted in members proposing new approaches to evaluating the actual need for a rate increase. Member Dominic Calabaro recommended that the city hire a consumer advocate to review the specifics of the proposed rate increase – something that has never been done. City Manager Anita Favors said it was good idea, but it was never publicly recommended to the city commission.
Other members were successful in securing an additional meeting to further quiz the COT consultant on the specifics of the rate increase. Committee member Jim Croteau pushed for the additional meeting by saying “obviously, we’re of no use if we don’t have time to discuss the underlying assumptions.” The meeting was cancelled and rescheduled for July 12th . However, Tallahassee Reports was told that the COT consultant would not be attending the rescheduled meeting.
But now, none of this really matters.
On June 30th, at the budget workshop the city commission voted (Mustian voted against) to accept a proposal made by COT electric staff to spend $19 million from the operating reserves to cover increased electric rates. The electric staff offered two proposals, neither were vetted through the citizens advisory committee and neither of the proposals gave the city commission the option of hiring a consumer advocate to review the rate study and recommend cost cutting measures.
“With this action we will close the rate study and reopen it next year” said assistant City Manger for utilities Rick Fernandez. When quizzed by a couple of commissioners about the lack of input from the Citizen Advisory Committee, Mr. Fernandez stated that members “have asked a number of questions and I think a lot of them were sort of elementary questions.”
There was no mention to the commissioners by Fernandez or City Manager Favors about the desire by members to spend two hours questioning the city’s paid consultant about the rate increase or the recommendation of a couple of members to hire a consumer advocate to review rates.
The final straw for the COT electric utility staff must have come just days before at the financial viability meeting where Commissioner Mustian and Commissioner Gillum quizzed the staff about the proposed rate increase. Commissioner Mustian repeatedly requested information about the drivers of the rate increase and was clear in wanting to spend some time flushing out the issue.
So much for “flushing out” the specifics of the rate increase!
With almost three months before a final vote on the budget and a citizens advisory committee ready to ask some substantive questions, the city commission voted to spend $19 million without any input from the committee and without answering any questions about the specifics of the rate increase.
None of this should be surprising. The reactivation of the committee was due to pressure from the Leon County Board of Commissioners, not because of any sincere concern from the city. The fact that the city manager appointed the members and the committee reported to her, really limited their ability to make a difference. As a member of the advisory board told Tallahassee Reports months ago, “the city manager does not want a real debate on any of these issues.”