Take back the power

Published 12:16 am Thursday, September 22, 2011

Human behavior is a curious thing. We oftentimes do the same things over and over, expecting different results but knowing that, in the end, the same failures and mistakes that we’ve done in the past will repeat themselves. However, in some of those rare moments in life, we change our behavior drastically for the better and rectify our shortcomings.

As George Washington once wrote, “To rectify past blunders is impossible, but we might profit by the experience of them.”

Everyone talks about how horrible our utility rates are, the poor service we get and the insane policies that pour out of the city’s utility department; but we seem to accept them as inevitable and unchangeable.

Why? Sure there are plenty of changes that the utility department could make … extending the due dates on bills, credits for low-usage months, breaking out deposits over a longer period of time and more. But all these changes would only bandage a fundamental flaw in the way the City of Washington’s residents and businesses receive their services.

The question at the heart of the issue, and one that we are not supposed to be inquisitive about because it may possibly offend the sensibilities of some, is why in the world do we have the city bureaucracy running our utilities and managing our bills in the first place? Have they proven to be efficient and cost-effective? Perhaps if you compared the results with those in Zimbabwe, but otherwise I believe the results fall far short of 21st-century expectations.

Much like Social Security is considered the third rail of national politics, it is almost as if questioning the city’s role in delivering our utility services is the sacred cow of Washington politics. Well, I submit we cannot allow it to remain so.

When I’ve raised the question with city officials before, I am often told that the city isn’t making money off the utilities department. Well that may be true, but the city budget has certainly become dependent on the utility bills — hence this year’s transfer of slightly more than $937,000 from the utility budget to the general city budget. Why is this acceptable? What incentive would the city ever have to lower rates, become more efficient and move us away from an increasingly business-unfriendly energy policy if the city is reliant on your monthly energy extortion to help fund its general budget?

There are businesses in Washington whose electric bills are higher than their rents, homeowners whose bills are higher than their mortgage payments and elderly residents who see significant chunks of their Social Security checks going to the city’s utility department on a monthly basis.

It does not need to be so. We need competition in the system, a privatization of delivery and billing and an immediate end to the city monopoly of our utility Tadeliveries. The status quo is a slow poison that is stifling economic growth, strangling struggling families and outright destroying existing businesses. So why are we afraid to ask our city officials what is the tangible benefit of having the city bureaucracy in charge of our energy needs?

If you found out your local grocery store was putting arsenic in the food, would you ask them to put a bit less in or would you switch stores?

Let’s switch stores.

Let’s take back the power!

Gary Ceres is co-owner of I Can’t Believe It’s a Book Store in downtown Washington.