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HERENTON TO MLGW: CHANGES ARE COMING

HERENTON TO MLGW: CHANGES ARE COMING

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In a blistering critique, Mayor Willie Herenton all but gave MLGW President Herman Morris and five board members their walking papers Tuesday. The surprise announcement, coupled with an admission that a property tax hike is likely within the next two years, came at an executive committee meeting of the City Council, which is weighing MLGW’s request for a seven-percent rate hike. Conceding that he does not know the utility’s fiscal situation as well as he knows city finances, Herenton said MLGW needs its first rate increase in eight years. “I fully support MLGW’s request for additional revenue,” he said. He suggested, however, that it be phased in over two years, with the increase in gas rates postponed until October of 2004. And he said the question of utility rates was secondary to the city’s overall financial needs and to MLGW’s performance. He then proceeded to rip MLGW for “costly mistakes in technology,” wasteful construction of a facility on Whitten Road, low morale, bloated salaries and benefits, “self-aggrandizing” advertising, top-heavy executive ranks, and “a number of employees who have bad attitudes” particularly in customer service. Herenton appointed Morris, an attorney formerly with the NAACP, and the five board members, including his pastor the Rev. James Netters. Their terms have expired but it is not uncommon for board members to continue to serve. Herenton said his management style is to give subordinates freedom to do their jobs until they mess up. “I’m into MLGW’s business because there have been some bad decisions,” he said, speaking firmly but without anger or sarcasm to a packed committee room. “We’ve allowed MLGW to operate as an island unto itself.” He said, in all apparent seriousness, that he intends to nominate “private citizen Willie Herenton” to the boar, triggering a predictable round of “King Willie” outrage on local talk radio stations. He did not mention Morris or any board members by name. Morris was in the committee room and listened carefully but declined to comment afterwards. Herenton has had a testy relationship with MLGW since he made an aborted proposal to sell it in 1998. Two events apparently set off his critique. First came the devastating wind storm last July and MLGW’s response to it. Herenton said service complaints spilled over into the mayor’s citizen’s service center because callers could not get through to MLGW. More recently there was an MLGW non-response to a letter that Herenton took as something of a snub. The mayor said he informed MLGW officials of his thinking two weeks ago and “they made no attempt to meet with me.” “I guarantee you in the future MLGW will have management that will not hesitate to meet with the mayor,” he said. Herenton said council members should consider the proposed utility rate hike in the context of a a sewer fee hike he said is vital and the strong probability of a property tax hike of 25 to 35 cents by 2006. Council members will decide on the rate hike while Herenton gets to make the calls at MLGW’s board and presidency. The mayor had sharp words for councilman Joe Brown as he got up to leave the room. He reminded councilmen that he had worked with 12 (out of 13) of them as chairman. Brown’s turn is coming next. “You’ve got one vote, Joe, one vote,” he said. Then, for good measure, “you don’t run nothin’” as he strode out of the room.

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