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BIG BREAK FOR BIG BIZ? New city utility bill law offers open-ended discounts to "large users"

More big breaks for big special interests? 

 
COLUMBIA, 2/6/12  (Beat Byte) -- Pay your bill with a check or in cash, and get a discount.  It's a common practice in business, and can help save money by reducing credit expenses.  Many businesses offer a so-called "cash discount" to their customers -- ALL of their customers.

But at Columbia City Hall Monday night, Council members will explore providing utility bill cash discounts to only large customers under ordinance B39-12, which leaves several terms vague and ill-defined.

"Some large utility customers pay their bills with credit cards, resulting in significant service charges to the city," a staff report reads, citing rising credit card fees -- $462,000 in 2011.  But those fees apply to all customers who use credit cards, not just large customers.  

The discount, however, is targeted entirely at large customers, and left entirely at the discretion of the city's finance director.  "The finance director may enter into agreements with large volume utility customers that give the customers a discount for making utility payments in cash; provided that the agreements provide significant savings for the city," the proposed law reads.   
 
"The staff justification supporting this proposed ordinance change is total nonsense."

City public works superintendent Bill Weitkemper, an outspoken critic of utility billing practices, emailed Council members questions.
 
"How many of the City’s large volume utility customers pay their monthly utility bill with a credit card?" he asked.  "Who will the Finance Director offer a discount?   How much of a discount will the Finance Director offer?   Will each customer be offered the same dscount?" 
 
Weitkemper also made an important point:    The discount plan is so open-ended, virtually any special interest with enough political muscle could sidle up to the trough and qualify.   What's more, although many large utility customers do not use credit cards, every large utility customer automatically qualifies for the discount under the proposal.   
 
"This is crazy!"
"Have you hugged your City Councilman today for this?"
-- Columbia Citizens listserv members on hearing of the proposal
 
A simpler approach, Weitkemper added, would be to borrow a technique from the folks over at the Roger B.   County government adds processing fees to user bills paid with credit cards.   
 
"The staff justification supporting this proposed ordinance change is total nonsense," he told Council members.  
 
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