Columbia utility customers getting break on monthly bills

cleblanc@thestate.comApril 17, 2013 

— Columbia City Council is set to keep its promise to reduce a utility fee customers in the city have been paying for 21/2 years to prop up the bus system.

Also during a specially called meeting Thursday, the entire council for the first time will grapple with next year’s city budget. A draft of the 2013-14 budget is weighted by a $4 million deficit in the $125.7 million general fund, the account from which most of Columbia’s government operates.

Even with that deficit, City Council has yet to decide whether it will spend even more money on dealing with the homeless and other fiscal pressures for big-ticket projects.

The good news for residential and business customers of South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. is that much of the “franchise fee” they pay in their monthly utility bills will be scaled back after May 1.

How many customers will enjoy the 2 percentage point fee reduction remained unclear Wednesday, said Jeff Palen, the city’s chief financial officer. SCE&G had not provided the numbers to the city as of Wednesday afternoon, Palen said.

Council raised the fee to 5 percent as a stopgap while the bus system faced deficits as high as $3 million. Council members promised last fall to cut back the fee to the original 3 percent if the penny sales tax increase was adopted in Richland County. The referendum passed by about 6,600 votes in November, raising the countywide tax to 8 cents on the dollar.

The 2 percent franchise fee add-on brought in between $3.5 million and $4 million yearly, according to Columbia’s finance office. State law prohibits the disclosure of the exact amount of money collected through franchise fees. Utility companies pay the fee to municipalities for the use of public rights of way to have access to their power lines.

The 2 percent portion is what will be lifted on the day the sales tax increase takes effect – May 1.

Council tentatively adopted the cutback on Feb. 5, but has waited until now to give it a final OK. The postponement was to allow time for the S.C. Supreme Court to resolve a legal challenge of how the referendum was managed in an election widely criticized as perhaps the most bungled in recent state history. The justices upheld the outcome of the election.

Want to go? Here’s what you need to know.

Columbia City Council will hold a work session today to tackle next fiscal year’s budget and authorize a cutback in a monthly fee that utility customers pay.

When: 1 p.m.

Where: The conference room in the city garage on Washington Street across from police headquarters

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