High utility bills and what the city is doing to lower them were among the top concerns voiced by attendees at a Covington town hall Thursday evening.
The well-attended event, held at Turner Lake, was the first in a series of town halls Covington Mayor Kim Carter plans to regularly hold for city residents.
Responding to a question in the audience on why utility rates have yet to be lowered despite a campaign pledge by Carter in 2007 to do everything she could to lower them, the mayor said the city was investigating purchasing some extra power from outside sources to avoid having to buy so much summer electricity from the market.
Carter noted that the city has not raised its utility rate since 2000.
"We are short [on power] in the summertime, anywhere from 20 percent to 30 percent of the power that wee need," Carter said. "That's one of the reasons the costs are so high. A lot of this is caused by the tremendous growth we've had."
Carter pointed out that the city uses the proceeds from the sale of electricity to fund city operations. Because of this the city cannot simply lower utility rates without risking being unable to balance its budget the next year.
"Some of the utility profits help pay for the government, period, Carter said, adding that the city's low-homeownership rate necessitated the utility rates it charges.
Carter said the city collects only $900,000 in home property taxes.
City Manager Steve Horton said the city does not markup its rates but must pass on any price increases from the market to its customers. He added that utility bills would likely be slightly less this month due to a 1.5 cent drop in the price of kilowatt-hours as natural gas and gasoline prices have somewhat declined.
Responding to a question on whether the council would support eliminating property taxes for residents 70 years and older, Carter said, "We all have to share the load. To have a great community, that's vibrant, taxes are necessary."
Added Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams, "If we eliminate taxes [for senior citizens], it's going to be a real liability for our community."
On the need for more sidewalks in residential areas, Horton said the city is in the process of putting together a lottery system by which, if all affected property owners will agree to donate the necessary right-of-way, the city will finance the costs of installing sidewalks, curbs and gutters on selected streets.
Audience member Sam B. Hay III noted that the city and county used to be the envy of the state during the latter part of the 20th century when industry after industry chose to settle in Covington. Hay said that was no longer case and the city needed to do all it could to attract more industrial development.
"It seems to me that the sum [of money spent on attracting industrial development] that is put out by the city and county is just paltry compared to what it needs to be," Hay said. "I think we need to do something about selling the county."
Carter agreed and said the city was waiting on the results of an economic development study it had undertaken with the county to determine which course of action would be most appropriate for attracting further economic development.
Bringing more high-income jobs to the area through new industries was key Carter said to so many of the things the city would like to see happen such as attracting higher end restaurants and retail stores and being able to shift the revenue burden from utility rates to property taxes.