The White Pine County Commission voted 3-2 in favor of the long-talked about “franchise fee” that will raise county residents’ electric bills by a total of 2.5 percent over the next four years in the commission’s meeting on Aug.12.
The new ordinance, which according to multiple commissioners is expected to be put into place on Sept. 1, will implement a 1 percent increase on electric bills this year, another 1 percent in 2017 and a .5 percent in 2019. The additional charge is not expected to show up on county residents’ power bills until November, as the county has to give 60 days notice to Mt. Wheeler Power and utilities to allow for the change, once official.
The fee was hotly debated back in June when the commission looked into adding different revenue sources to try and minimize cuts to the number of county employees and their wages as well as department budgets.
The commission voted to move forward with the franchise fee, but it had to go through the proper county ordinance process of holding a public hearing and having two readings of the ordinance in a public meeting.
With those requirements met and approved by District Attorney Mike Wheable, the ordinance is now ready to become official.
County Commission Chairman Gary Perea was one of the three commissioners to vote to pass the ordinance at the Aug. 12 meeting, along with Richard Howe and Laurie Carson.
Perea reiterated his belief that the county and City of Ely’s governments should eventually become one entity. As the city residents already pay a 3 percent franchise fee on their electric bills, Perea said he felt it would make that transition easier while adding much needed revenue to the county’s budget.
“As I said back in June, my goal is that the City of Ely and White Pine County will consolidate under one government. I didn’t want the differences in the franchise fees to be an issue so I went ahead and voted in favor of it,” Perea said. “White Pine County made numerous cuts and are still eating into our ending fund balance but we do have a plan in place to have a balanced budget in two to three years.”
County Commissioner Mike Coster said he was surprised to hear Perea say there is a plan in place as he is not aware of one. Coster, who voted no on the fee increase along with Commissioner Carol McKenzie, said he in fact is worried about the direction the county’s finances are heading and the two month delay, added to the 60-day noticing period, will result in less revenue generated from the fee than was budgeted.
“Although in the budget that we originally submitted to the state, we said that we would be collecting on 11 and a half months of estimated tax for fiscal year 2016, which is the year we are in right now. But because of the time we have taken to do it, for one reason or another, we are actually now looking at 7 months,” Coster said.
The commissioner argued that the fewer months the tax is collected, when combined with the less than projected mining revenues due to Midway Gold filing for bankruptcy, means the county is moving in the wrong direction financially.
His fear is the county will continue to rely heavily on the ending fund balance, which serves as a savings account for the county in times of need, instead of balancing the budget.
McKenzie said her “no” vote came from the fee hitting farmers and mining companies much harder than the more negligible impact it would have on county residents.
Howe, who has adamantly argued in favor of the franchise fee even before the county elections last year, said he stands by the increase “100 percent.”
“This was the right thing to do as it will provide a sustainable revenue source for the county while only gradually increasing county residents bills,” Howe said, adding as a city resident himself, he hardly notices the 3 percent franchise fee he pays on his property.