Monday, November 30, 2015

Fighting Fires...

Our Mayor, City Council, and the City Leadership Team submitted this to our local paper in regards to the challenges we are currently facing as a community.
Our city is an amazing and wonderful place. The things that make this city great are not buildings or trees or stadiums or homes or factories. Our greatness is found in the people who build the buildings, plant the trees, cheer in the stadiums, live in the homes, and work in our factories.

And yes, over time, our buildings have aged, our trees have bent over with the weight they carry, our stadiums are not as great as they once were, our homes are in need of repair, and some of our factories have closed. Throughout all of the years our community has proven time and time again that when faced with crisis we are resilient, we are wise, we are tough, and we will prevail.

In 1876 our city faced one of many crises that pepper our history. The general store at the corner of Broad and Pitts caught fire and was soon engulfed in flames. The flames jumped from store to store and finally to residences near Broad Street. As our city began to burn to the ground, there was no fire department, no plan, and no hope. Did our forefathers stand and watch their city burn to the ground?

No they did not. They went searching for buckets to carry water.

Today our city faces a different type of fire. Sparked by rising utility costs; it is one fueled by rumors, anger, mistrust, and fear and it is moving through our community with the same speed and ferocious appetite as the great fire of 1876.

Is this a crisis? Yes, it is. A grenade that our city pulled the pin on in the 1980s has finally exploded and the result has been a rising utility rate that this summer, due to consumption and power cost adjustment charges, entered the realm of the entirely unacceptable. When a citizen must choose between food, life maintaining medicine, and paying a city utility bill we must take steps to help.

Some of you have taken steps to help. While council and staff are looking at long range solutions to address the problem, many of our citizens have shown the true spirit that lives in our community by raising money to help people pay for prescription medicine. One customer opened her door to find a pile of food on her doorstep left by a stranger. Some customers have opened their bills to see a credit on their bill; paid from an anonymous donation made to the city to help those struggling the most get through this summer. To those of you who have stopped us on the street to tell us of the prayers you are sending up to the heavens for this city, we humbly and gratefully thank you.

We imagine that, in 1876, as our city fathers stood close enough for the heat of the downtown fire to blister their skin and as they passed bucket after bucket of water in an attempt to tame the fire that there was doubt in their minds as to whether or not the fire could be tamed in time to save the city. We imagine bystanders huddled on the streets watching as the men of our city stepped forward and began to hurl buckets of water onto structures in what must have looked like a feeble exercise against impossible odds.

What history does tell us is that the bucket brigade of 1876 didn’t take unnecessary risks or make decisions based on little evidence, but instead they took a swift and methodical approach to fighting a fire and ultimately contained the fire and saved our fledgling city.

Now, as we fight the fire of utility costs we must make solid and sound decisions that will help our citizens without creating a new crisis that our children must address twenty years from now. The kicking of the can down the road stops here, it stops now, and stops with us – all of us. We have a good plan that offers opportunities going forward to address and stem the rising cost of electricity. We will continue to move forward, methodically, prudently, wisely, and aggressively. However we will not solve this problem overnight, and we will not address it through a series of unwise, unsound, and finically questionable knee-jerk reactions.

Last week it was suggested by this paper that the city over collected revenue this summer by comparing utility units sold to revenue billed for a single thirty day period in 2014 and 2015 and it was suggested that refund checks be issued. We, your elected representation and your staff, are not opposed to the idea of returning over collected revenues to the citizen. That is one reason the PPCA was implemented and it returned over collected revenues to our citizens in the form of a reduced electric rate below the $0.148 per kwh base rate three times since January. If allowed to do its job, it will allow us to develop a rate stabilization fund to prevent what happened this summer from happening again – and it will also, once that fund is built, return funds to our citizens.

When we compare figures from previous years to today, we have to include the cost of purchasing the electricity for resale and we need to look at costs over a much larger period than thirty days.  Between 2014 and 2015 the cost the city pays for power increased significantly, up to 10% on the demand fixed charges that we pay and 3% on the volumetric charges we pay. Those figures have to be accounted for and PPCA does that, and has done that, and the bill you will receive in October for energy used in September will reflect a PPCA addition of $0 – resulting in lower costs for energy than what was experienced this summer.

There are no pictures of our tired and worn out city fathers celebrating the fact that they stopped the downtown fire from destroying our fledgling city, but if there were we suspect it would look similar to the photograph of the 1977 state championship Red Devil football team as they celebrated their victory after defeating James Island. In the picture everyone is smiling, with their arms around each other and fists pumping in the air. They are the black and white sons of mill workers, shop owners, college professors, and educators. They have overcome challenges and they are now forever immortalized in the history of our city.

Decades from now, in a new volume of history of our great city, there will be a reference to the utility crisis of 2015. We are writing that history right now and we have to be sure that the story we write is not one that reports that we acted hastily, basing our decisions on pieces of data with no regard for the whole picture, resulting in a legacy that our children  and grandchildren must clean up because we failed to get it right.

Instead we can write a legacy that shows how once again every citizen of this community came together to fix a problem, made solid long lasting decisions to change our government operations, and created a stronger more vibrant city. Perhaps there will even be a picture of us – councilmembers, staff, and citizens – with smiles on our faces that rival those of the 1977 championship team. Together we can do this – now let’s get to work.