WASHINGTON COUNTY - Utility customers in the unincorporated portions of Washington County will see the recently approved 5 percent utility franchise fee on their October bill.

Established by a legal process outlined in Florida statute, the fee is contract between the county and area utility companies Gulf Power and West Florida Electric Cooperative that outlines the companies' use of the county's public right-of-ways. Cities can also set the structure of franchise fees. In both cases, the fees only apply for customers within the boundary of each government's respective jurisdiction and appear as a separate item on customer bills. The utility companies then collects the fee and remits it to the appropriate government entity.

The Board of Commissioners, which unanimously approved to implement the fee in an August 24 session, states the fee is intended to help keep the county from increasing ad valorem taxes.

"It is our goal to not raise ad valorem taxes," said Commissioner Alan T. Bush. "We do not want to balance the budget on the backs of property owners. With that in mind, I felt the franchise fee was the right thing to do, although I did feel some hesitation because I was not confidant that future boards would have the same commitment to keep ad valorem at a lower rate. I'm placing this fee on myself just the same as anyone else."

As a resident of Vernon, Tray Hawkins is the only commissioner to not live in an unincorporated area; however Hawkins has already been paying a franchise fee through a city ordinance. Vernon charges utility providers a 4 percent franchise fee.

"We did not levy this [franchise fee] on the taxpayers," said Hawkins. "We levied it on the utility companies and hoped they would pay it. The power companies then passed it along to their customers. Meanwhile, we have been able to keep millage at a lower rate, being at under 9.25 mils for the first time [in recent history]."

Washington County joins a handful of Florida counties to impose the fees, including Santa Rosa, Escambia, and Jackson Counties.

Comparatively, Jackson County charges companies the legal cap at 6 percent, while there is no franchise fee in place for Holmes, Calhoun, or Bay Counties.

No franchise fees are charged for the local municipalities of Ebro, Caryville, or Wausau; however Vernon and Chipley each have a 4 percent franchise fee in place.

Other area municipalities charging the fees include Bonifay at 3 percent or Ponce de Leon at 6.