Thursday, January 22, 2015

Franchise Fees : What Are They Good For?

Mayor Kasim Reed seems to have bladder control issues as he just cannot seem to avoid pissin' contests with damn near everyone he comes in contact with. The latest is AT&T and is over the costs incurred by AT&T to relocated equipment and infrastructure so that Kasim's toy train could be set out in time for Christmas. Didn't quite make Christmas unless you're Eastern Orthodox but that was the plan. So AT&T finds themselves in a $5.8 million hole and they'd like the city to cover the costs. Now given the realities of big business, AT&T isn't on the hook as much as their customers since AT&T consistently turns a profit. It should come as no surprise that the mayor who wants to steal millions from school children for his ring-around-the-rosies playground isn't going to pay up for collateral damage caused by his train set. That's where franchise fees come into play.

Now there are a few ways to look at franchise fees. One is they are just another tax, but with a label making them acceptable to Republicans who go into anaphylactic shock whenever they hear, let alone speak, the word "tax." Reed, being a Democrat, has no problem with the word but sees it pretty much like he sees everything else: any money he can get his hands on is his money. Fee, tax, who cares? It's just revenue.

Another view, one that came up in the Georgia Senate decades ago is that franchise fees are rent paid by utilities for access to public rights of way. Some considered this to cover any costs the franchising government might incur should the utility cause secondary damages to the rights of way when maintaining or upgrading their equipment or infrastructure. But since none of the franchising governments set aside any of the franchise fee revenue for that purpose one can only conclude that they don't see it that way.

A third view (though not the legal argument being used by AT&T) speaks to a more collaborative arrangement between the franchising government and the utility. This  PoV is based on the previous "fees to cover incurred costs" and expands it to include costs incurred by the utility should the franchising organization make changes in the rights of way that impact the utility. One could argue this is the case with AT&T and the train set.

Where it gets personal is when you view these large utilities, especially those with near or full monopolies, as a pass-thru billing service for the franchising government. In other words, we're paying these fees no matter how you view them and some are asking what we get for them. If the mayor wins (and his position is likely to be supported by every other mayor in Georgia) we, the taxpayers and ratepayers, will pay twice: first with franchise fees which get us nothing and then with higher rates necessary for AT&T to cover the costs caused by the city.