Charleston Mayor Joe Riley pleaded with City Council members Tuesday to approve a fee increase for power companies — an increase inevitably handed down to consumers — in order to balance the city’s strained budget. To balance the $146 million budget, Riley has called for an increase in gas and electric franchise fees for SCE&G from 3 percent to 5 percent. The budget, which also includes a furlough of some holidays for all employees, passed 8-3.

An average Charleston homeowner would see a $5.40-a-month increase beginning on Jan. 2011 power bills if the fee increase and budget receive final approval next week, according to Steve Bedard, the city’s chief finance officer. Some council members suggested it was a back door tax increase hitting taxpayers’ pocketbooks.

“I’m fearful that in raising the franchise fee, we’re only increasing the cost for consumers,” said Councilman Gary White.
Noting the increase was worth $3.8 million, Riley read off a list of spending necessities that would go unfunded, including staff to open the new Bees Landing gym, new vehicles for the city’s first responders and sanitation workers, and potentially impacting some core services, including broader recreational programs.

“What we sought to do is prepare a budget that did not have draconian service cuts that would negatively impact our residents,” Riley said.
Councilwoman Yvonne Evans said the council needed to support the fee hike to avoid the alternative.

“I think we all need to be very honest with ourselves and the taxpayers we represent,” she said. “We are working on a budget that’s hard, but in the end will not have a property tax increase.”

White countered that other people are making hard choices in order to keep their lights on.