COLUMBIA — Several members of the board of a Midlands electric cooperative whose customers pay some of the highest electric rates in South Carolina made more than $50,000 by holding 50 meetings in a year, according to tax records.

Many meetings of the Tri-County Electric Co-Op board lasted less than an hour, allowing some board members to collect the $450-a-day allowance for meetings at a nearly once-a-week-rate, according to the records obtained by The State.

Seven of the co-op's nine members made at least $45,000 in 2016, the exceptions being members Barry Hutto and Jeff Reeves, who both resigned. A national trade group says board members at other South Carolina co-ops make around $28,000 a year and the national average is about $15,000.

"I saw that there was no way we were going to change the mentality of that board by being on it," said Hutto, a 10-year Tri-County board member.

Members of the state-owned utility Santee Cooper board make $10,000 a year. Santee Cooper provides most of Tri-County's power.

Tri-County has 13,600 customers in parts of Calhoun, Orangeburg, Richland, Lexington, Kershaw and Sumter counties. They pay some of the highest electric rates in the state — about 15.2 cents per kilowatt hour, which is higher than South Carolina Electric & Gas rates.

Board chairman Heath Hill made $79,000 from the co-op in 2016. He referred all questions from the newspaper to Tri-County CEO Chad Lowder.

Lowder said Tri-County customers pay higher rates because the co-op has a large area to cover and not as many customers.

"Anywhere we can find savings is going to reduce our costs," Lowder said. "Everything goes to the bottom line."

The co-op proposed changing its pay policy after a national association pointed out the disparity. But several members argued against the new rules and they were rejected by 30 votes out of 2,120 cast by co-op customers at the utility's annual meeting earlier this month.

Some Tri-County Co-Op board members also get health insurance through the utility, which adds to the board's compensation.

While some Tri-County board members reported attending up to 50 meetings a year, Mid-Carolina Electric, which borders Tri-County to the west, typically holds no more than 14 meetings a year, according to its chief executive, Bob Paulling.

Carl Weeks, who was on the Tri-County board a decade ago, said the trustees did not meet as often when he was on the board. Weeks said he made about $24,000 for his work.

"They're trying to make a living on the co-op," Weeks said. "It's about as clean as you can put it out there. The bylaw changes would have been great."