In a fanciful mood, you might even look at Lakeland and see that elusive unity of “left” and right” that we’re always pretending we want. Here’s the socialist power plant providing blue collar, middle class jobs, keeping property taxes low, and providing astonishingly good public spaces; here’s the terrifically run conservative enterprise, employing thousands and filling those public spaces with lovely amenities. See, it can work.
Well, something very disturbing has happened. One of our parents seems not to be getting what it wants from the other anymore. It seems it’s been having an affair with TECO, and it may want a divorce. More than that, it wants the children, us, to pick a side.
Whatever language anyone chooses to use to dress this up, it seems that Publix and our city’s top economic developer are discreetly but firmly pushing Lakeland to get rid of its most valuable asset because Publix doesn’t like what it pays for power.
I am not qualified to determine if that’s a legitimate gripe. But if Publix thinks it’s a legitimate gripe, then I probably do, too. In fact, I more or less support a “Publix rule” for LE rates. If you employ a billion people and have the massive beneficial effect on this city that Publix does, you get to pay whatever the hell you want for power. I exaggerate, but only a little.
But I will not support getting rid of the most valuable thing I own without an extraordinary deal. How extraordinary? It better produce a dividend of at least $35 million/year, indexed to inflation for 100 years. The dividend paid to the city, we shareholders, is currently approaching $25 million. Why do we need at least a $10 million premium?
Well, first you need to justify all the working class people who would get fired and never again find comparable jobs. A private utility brings its own support staff and structure. There will be redundancies liquidated and incomes removed from our local economy. Are you going to hire those people, Publix?
Second, we’ll be giving up all means to pressure our provider politically over rates. Lakeland Electric is actually quite responsive to public pressure because the city commissioners don’t like getting raked over the coals about it. Who’s going to pressure TECO? The Ledger will magically cease to report on rates if a private utility buys Lakeland Electric. That’s because there are no TECO city commissioners to call and gripe at. You won’t know, ever, the shenanigans inside a private utility that you hear about now with LE because a private utility doesn’t have to tell you. As a ratepayer, it’s easy to pick up the phone and call Howard Wiggs. And he won’t laugh at you. If you are not Barney Barnett, good luck getting past a private utility’s laugh track. We won’t know how our rates stack up with the rest of state because no one will be pressured to tell us. And in case you haven’t noticed, we don’t live in a consumer’s paradise in this state.
Third, Lakeland Electric is a property tax eraser. Its rates are a consumption tax–basically a sales tax on energy. It’s always amusing to me that many of the same people who love “the Fair Tax” hate the idea of Lakeland Electric’s dividend. They are both essentially sales/consumption taxes. I find them preferable to property taxes because they are pretty consistent and they reward efficiency. A person or business can affect what what he or she or it pays purely by behavior. By contrast, property taxes flow out of the alchemy of the property appraiser’s office and can feel capricious.
I think supporters of selling LE underestimate the power and simplicity of the property tax argument in an election. One hopes we don’t have to see if I’m right.
Ultimately, there’s almost nothing I wouldn’t do for Publix. But Lakeland Electric falls under the almost.
If you sit me down in the living room and say, “We’re splitting up; where do you want to live?” I would reluctantly choose the $25 million per year we use to directly enhance quality of life in this very strategically located city. I would choose Peterson Park and Simpson Pool and a horticulture department and well-paid police officers and all those things that indicate a lovely community. Publix has built on that foundation beautifully over the years. But Lakeland Electric came first. It’s been the foundation of this community for decades.
So I would much, much, much prefer that our parents get themselves into couples therapy pronto and work out the real problem. For the good of the kids.