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Utility ordinance still up in the air

June 26, 2012

Benton City Council members once again discussed an ordinance that in its present form revises the customer service rules, regulations and fees for Benton Utilities, but the ordinance still has not been adopted.
In a meeting Tuesday night, attempts were made to revise the ordinance, but these suggestions were not approved.
Efforts also were made to approve the ordinance as it now reads on all of its three readings, but this didn't happen either.
Also thwarted was a motion to send the ordinance back to committee for further study.
The ordinance, which has been studied at length by the Public Utilities Commission and the council's Community Services Committee, stems from complaints made by commercial customers who have been charged what they deemed to be unfair deposits when they were delinquent on their accounts.
In the council's May 14 meeting, the aldermen approved a resolution authorizing the PUC to suspend increased deposit amounts for 60 days while the issue was under review.
The proposed ordinance, in its current form, includes a passage regarding commercial and industrial customers. It stipulates that a cash deposit amount must not exceed two estimated maximum monthly utility bills. Deposits of less than two months may be granted upon approval by the PUC if the applicant does not have an adverse credit history, the ordinance states.
As an alternative to a cash deposit, if the amount required exceeds $300, the customer may furnish an automatically renewable surety bond, a certificate of deposit made jointly to the customer and Benton Utilities, or an irrevocable letter of credit from a local bank.
In Monday's meeting, Aldermen Jerry Ponder and Bill Donnor voiced their support for leaving the current system in place, noting their concern about the city's loss of revenue if the changes are made.
Only two complaints have been received about the current system, according to Cindy Hawkins, billing service manager for Benton Utilities.
Benton businessman Newell C. "Mack" McManus spoke in favor of the proposed changes, saying the city's current system can force the closure of a business.
The ordinance is scheduled for its third reading at the next council meeting.
According to information presented in Monday's meeting and in a prior session, the changes in the ordinance would make the city's system comparable to those followed by First Electric Cooperative and by Entergy.
In other matters, the council approved an ordinance establishing a restricted fund for the street projects around the Benton Events Center. Streets involved would be Wright Avenue, Sharon Road and Nalley Street.
The council approved $130,000 for these projects.
The council also approved an ordinance that amends the personnel policies and practices of the city, making the mayor and general manager of each commission responsible for designating public information officers.
The ordinance states that the public information officer will be the individual assigned to review all releases of official information to the public and will serve as the central contact person for media outlets.
The ordinance give the mayor the authority to designate a separate public information officer for the police and/or fire departments.
"Official information" is defined as being that information authorized by the city for release to the public, including but not limited to emergency bulletins, power outages, public event schedules, street closings and other matters.
No other employee or volunteer worker for the city and its commission will be authorized to author and release official information to the pubic, which includes releases of information to the news media as well as postings on the Internet.
The ordinance notes that the prohibition is "not intended to restrict First Amendment rights of any individual nor is it intended to prohibit any elected official from disseminating information to the public."
In other matters, the council:
•Approved an ordinance levying the annual tax on real and personal property in the city. There is no change from the preceding year.
•Approved an ordinance accepting streets, drainage and utilities for maintenance in Pleasant Forest Subdivision, Phase 3.
•Approved an ordinance abandoning radio equipment that no longer can be used.

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