Monopoly not an answer to carriage-tour problems

The notion that only by creating a monopoly can the city of Beaufort end bickering between its two horse-carriage tour operators is akin to prescribing surgery to treat a hangnail.

Even if the city is legally allowed to award a license to just one company -- and the city attorney advised as far back as 1996 that it is not worth the risk of a lawsuit to find out -- this would be a cure worse than the malady.

Councilman Mike Sutton asked that staff seek a state attorney general's opinion on whether the city could eliminate the competition and award a license to only one company. The council and city staff are understandably fed up with operators who unfortunately require close supervision, but one of the tour owners has already provided a glimpse of monopoly service. He said he'd run fewer tours over shorter hours and call a rainout at a cloud's first approach.

But that means fewer customers would be served, and there would be less incentive for a tour operator to give them what they want, when they want it. Oh, and they might be charged more, too.

None of this would be good for Beaufort's tourism image.

Of course, it isn't good for Beaufort's image to have two operators fussing over horse-waste cleanup and ticket-sales protocol, either. But these are problems that can be addressed by putting teeth in franchise agreements -- up to and including revocation of the franchise privilege through the duration of the bid cycle -- and assigning someone to clamp down on operators when necessary.

This would entail time and effort, and that might not seem desirable to the City Council or to city staff. But absent carriage-tour operators behaving responsibly, greater city vigilance will be required to solve this problem no matter what course is followed.

In fact, the monopoly approach would merely introduce another set of problems for the city to guard against, including price gouging and shoddy service. Even the transition to a monopoly would be thorny: Presumably, the existing companies would vie for the work, and the franchise would go to the highest bidder, not necessarily the company that has been more cooperative, conscientious or customer-friendly.

Market competition is imperfect, as the current problems illustrate. However, it does a far better job of keeping folks honest and customer-oriented than a monopoly supervised by a government as easily fatigued as Beaufort's seems to be.