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Santee Cooper hires new CEO and deputy to reform state-run utility

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PINOPOLIS — Santee Cooper is prepared pay two former Arizona utility officials up to $2 million to lead its executive team over the next year, as state lawmakers weigh whether to sell the state-run power provider.

Santee Cooper's board of directors voted Tuesday to confirm Mark Bonsall and Charlie Duckworth as the utility's new chief executive officer and deputy CEO, respectively.

They started work immediately. They were brought on to reform Santee Cooper, plot a path forward for the 85-year-old public utility and mend a relationship with the South Carolina Legislature.  

As CEO, Bonsall will make $1.1 million a year in his new position, with a chance to earn another $250,000 through performance bonuses. He'll also get up to $40,000 to relocate to South Carolina. 

Duckworth will take home $560,000 to lead the utility's long-term planning efforts. And he can earn up to $165,000 more through performance bonuses. 

"We understand that this is a higher compensation level than we have had in the past, but we believe it is appropriate," said Dan Ray, the chairman of the Santee Cooper board. "The board felt it was important to bring in someone who was seasoned." 

The compensation packages, Ray said, were compared to the pay for executives at several other public power providers and investor-owned utilities. That analysis showed the pay was around average for those utilities. Santee Cooper's last full-time CEO, Lonnie Carter, earned an annual salary of $540,929 before he retired two years ago. 

Bonsall and Duckworth have more than 80 years of public utility experience between them. They previously worked together at the Salt River Project, a large public utility that serves more than 1 million electric customers in Arizona. 

That familiarity, Bonsall said, will help as they take the reins of Moncks Corner-based Santee Cooper. As the only public utility in South Carolina, it supplies power to the 20 electric cooperatives in the state and another roughly 179,000 customers directly. 

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For more than two years now, Santee Cooper has been under increasing legal and political pressure.

The utility is the 45% owner of two abandoned nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer Station in Fairfield County. It borrowed roughly $4 billion in public debt to finance its portion of the project, which was canceled in July 2017 after years of delays and soaring construction costs. 

As a result, state lawmakers voted this year to open up bids for Santee Cooper. The full Legislature will vote next year on whether to sell the utility, hire another company to manage it or keep it under state control.

Bonsall, for his part, recognizes the difficult situation the utility is in with the canceled nuclear reactors. But he doesn't believe selling Santee Cooper is necessarily the best option. 

"I think Santee Cooper adds tremendous value for the state of South Carolina and to its customers," Bonsall said in an interview following his appointment. "Clearly there is an issue with the cancellation of the nuclear units. But throwing the baby out with the bathwater is a sub-optimal and uninformed solution." 

His task now is convincing state lawmakers of that. He hopes the General Assembly will be open to listening to proposals for how to reform Santee Cooper from within and hold down costs for all of its utility customers.

In his last job, Bonsall said he dealt with state lawmakers in Arizona on a regular basis. He'll be starting from scratch in South Carolina. 

"Am I comfortable addressing that situation? Absolutely," Bonsall said. "But between you and me, I'm clearly going to need some help. I don't have the history. I don't have the background. I don't have the relationships that I had in the state of Arizona. So I will be relying on the very good people of Santee Cooper and others to help me navigate those waters." 

He only has a couple months to make those inroads. The Legislature will get the bids for Santee Cooper in January. 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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