Galion city leaders used about 30 minutes at the end of Tuesday’s City Council meeting to make its case against a planned ballot initiative calling for an independent audit of the city’s electric rate structure.
The issue, raised by the Citizens for Galion group, asserts that the city did not charge residents properly for electric rates between 2005-2012.
The group believes the amount is over $4 million, an amount that has been vocally rebutted by various city leaders.
Citizens for Galion members are currently soliciting signatures to meet the Aug. 5 deadline required to put an issue on the ballot.
If passed, the independent audit would determine if any overcharge exists and to determine what refund would be paid to electric rate users.
That’s a conclusion where city officials take issue.
“If it passes, you will not get out of fiscal emergency at any time,” City Auditor Brian Treisch said. “I want to make Council aware that it’s not a good thing.”
“This is bad law,” Galion Law Director Thomas Palmer added. “If this was presented as an ordinance to Council, you wouldn’t have the authority to do it. And the voters don’t either. It’s flawed and problematic at its core. No mechanism at the state level to certify language for initiatives. If passed, it cannot become law. There’s financial and legal impact as well as comments about the motivation behind this.”
Palmer declined to get into specifics about why the ordinance would a bad deal when reached by e-mail Thursday,
“Until such time as the measure is actually approved for submission to voters, I would prefer not to share specific reasons,” he said. “The voters elected me to provide representation to the City of Galion and its elected officials, and doing my job well means that often legal opinions and planning must stay in-house.”
While responding to the proposed ballot measure, Council is in the midst of finalizing electric rate structure changes at the same time.
According to estimates supplied by the city, residential homes would see an average increase of $8-$10 per month and say that increase would be offset by a total decrease of $8-$10 per month in the city’s water and sewer rates.
Councilwoman Shirley Clark said on Tuesday that if the city would lose money in a refund, it would have to make up for the difference.
“This is more detrimental than it was good,” Clark said. “Why wasn’t this taken care of years ago? No one is going to make out with money. The utilities would have to go up (to make up for the money). The state has gone over this numerous times. Somebody has to cover the costs. It’s going to be the city.”
She also said voters would have to pick up the cost of the audit.
“If (Citizens for Galion) want the audit, why don’t they pay for it?” Clark asked.
Citizens for Galion member Roberta Wade said she disagrees with that assessment.
“This is real simple,” she said. “If the city is honest and wants to have the confidence of the people, the City would welcome an audit. City Council passes ordinances to authorizes audits; and they could have done that concerning the electric rates but they chose not to do so, even after the Mayor admitted that electric rate payers were overcharged $231,000. Of course, our group (Citizens for Galion) disagrees with that amount, as we estimate the overcharged amount will be at least $4 million. And our group wants to see to it that the electric rate payers who were overcharged receive refund checks.”
Galion Mayor Tom O’Leary said there is political motivation behind the proposal.
“This whole thing was cooked up three weeks before the election in 2013,” he said on Tuesday.
The proposal, if passed, calls for a four person body, two from the city and two from Citizens for Galion.
“These people want to have access and want to tear the house down,” O’Leary said. “The notion that it will resolve quickly is fantasy. There is quite a bit of respect for Council in this community. Not vocally countering this would be a mistake.”
Council President Carl Watt agreed.
“It’s high time we get out in the community and discuss this,” Watt said. “We need to be more vocal about this. It’s a real problem.”
Wade says she feels the measure will provide answers to the public.
“This audit/refund check ballot issue is an effort to hold our city government accountable,” she said. “The people have the right to an audit and the city government should support it, if they have nothing to hide.”