The first complaint arrived at Florida’s Public Service Commission, the state utility regulator, on February 4th. Tim Bolduc, city manager for Crestview, Florida, fussed in the letter that it was “fundamentally unfair” that his city’s constituents were “suffering” from the highest utility costs of any investor-owned utility in Florida. Conveniently, he failed to mention that Crestview shared some of the blame for the higher bills: a 6 percent tax in the form of a “franchise fee.”
Bolduc’s letter, prompted by the political need to “do something” about higher-than-expected utility bills suddenly arriving in residents’ mailboxes, pointed the finger of blame at Florida Power and Light (FPL). The letter read as if the utility company was somehow to blame for (a) higher demand driven by a longer-than-expected cold snap, and (b) rapidly rising worldwide energy costs. Bolduc then asked commissioners to “review” their recent decision granting an unrelated rate increase to FPL so the company could absorb the woefully indebted Gulf Power. FPL projected that previous Gulf Power customers would likely pay lower rates over the next three years as Gulf’s operations are upgraded and fully integrated into FPL’s more reliable and efficient power generation systems and distribution grid.
Bolduc, though, had no patience for FPL’s promise of lower rates by 2025. At least two of Bolduc’s bosses, Crestview City Council members Joe Blocker and Douglas Capps, are already facing opponents in the 2022 election cycle. Neither wants the headache of voters blaming them for higher energy bills.
Perhaps that is why Bolduc’s letter conveniently failed to mention Crestview City Council’s fat, roughly 6 percent cut of those higher utility bills. Last year alone, when rates were lower, Crestview collected $1.8 million from its residents by making FPL tack on the 6 percent tax. Bolduc was wise not to mention the newer, higher tax collections in the letter, lest angry voters know the truth and hold his bosses accountable.
Other politicians have since seen Crestview’s blame-shifting as political wisdom. Since Crestview fired off that first finger-pointing letter, other elected officials in other Panhandle municipalities, or their employees, have gotten in on the act. From Escambia to Santa Rosa County, from the city of Pensacola to the suburbs of Panama City Beach, ten city commissioners, two city managers, two mayors, a city council president, and two county commission chairs have affixed their signatures on near carbon copies of the original finger-pointing letter, blaming FPL for higher energy costs but conveniently failing to mention the role their own city taxes play on those higher energy bills.
Nor have any of those undersigned politicians offered a reduction in the taxes and fees that their cities and counties collect on their residents’ electric bills.
According to a recent report by ABC News WEAR-TV, Escambia County collected over $12.3 million in franchise fees, while the City of Pensacola collected over $5.8 million in franchise fees and another $6.6 million in utility fees. Santa Rosa County collected about $7.4 million in franchise fees. The much smaller city of Milton collected $700,000 last year on a five percent franchise fee. And Lynn Haven collected $3 million the previous year, and is counting on an extra $600,000 in its budget thanks to the new, higher charges.
That’s because when energy costs go up, so does the amount collected by those local politicians.
And yet, in letter after sanctimonious letter, none of those finger-pointing politicians have offered to take a smaller slice of the pie. Instead, they bloviate to the media that they’re “taking a look” at the possibility of reducing those taxes and fees on their residents, or boast that they have “directed” their city or county employees to “explore” the possibility of a reduction at some never-to-arrive point in the future.
If these hypocritical politicians really wanted to “do something,” the first thing they should do is reduce the taxes and fees they have heaped upon their own constituents, rather than blaming regulators for energy costs that are far outside anyone’s direct control.
It’s not fair to only blame local politicians, though. Others have gotten in on the act, too. Democrat Charlie Crist and Republican Matt Gaetz, both U.S. Representatives, have responded to media inquiries about higher energy prices and their impact on constituents. Gaetz, predictably, blamed Joe Biden‘s energy policies. Crist, of course, is sticking his nose into Panhandle business because he’s running for governor, and naturally, he’s pointing the finger of blame toward Republicans in Tallahassee, or more specifically, his potential gubernatorial opponent, Ron DeSantis.
Perhaps, rather than point fingers during election years, it’s time for state lawmakers to take a hard look at the power vested in municipal governments to levy taxes and charge fees to their residents. Or at the very least, make it so that local officials can no longer disguise those taxes using technical jargon as if it were money going straight to the local utility that provides energy, phone, internet, water, sewer, and trash services.
That way, when say, Crestview voters open their utility bills, they’ll see “Crestview city tax” listed there instead of a “franchise fee” that allows council members to duck responsibility for their part in the higher rates.