When they were created in the 1950s, the state’s five natural gas authorities by law were supposed to turn over profits to municipalities they served.
Two did. Clinton Newberry distributed $9.4 million over the past 10 years, equally split between the cities of Clinton and Newberry. (The authority's contribution makes up 7 percent of the city of Clinton's budget.) Fort Hill forked over more than $3.6 million over the past three years.
But three others — Chester, Lancaster and York — did not send anything to the municipalities in their jurisdictions in recent years. During the three previous fiscal years, Chester had about $1.1 million in net earnings, Lancaster $7.1 million and York $33.7 million, records show.
In a statement, Paul Dillingham, an attorney for the three authorities, said all three have no "surplus" funds, and that they set aside money to pay current and future debts and expansion projects. Surplus revenue, he said, "would be a good problem to worry about, but your question presumes a circumstance which does not and really could not exist in the foreseeable future."
Clinton Newberry Natural Gas Authority spent more than $230,000 on out-of-town retreats over five years. Closer to home, the agency's board and staff also enjoyed meals after their regular meetings.
During the past three years, ratepayers footed the bill for more than $30,000 for these board meals, with more than $23,000 spent at local restaurants, including Cabana Café ($17,844), Blue Ocean ($4,022) and more than $2,150 at Figaro, records show. In a statement, the agency said having meals at local restaurants helps the local economy.
Top Clinton Newberry staff, including its former general manager, Stan Bryson, and board members also treated themselves to regular meals at other times. Records show they charged the agency more than $12,700 at local restaurants since 2015. Bryson, who retired recently, had a salary of $182,999.
Clinton Newberry board members weren’t the only ones who scored discounts on appliances by buying them through the agencies they regulate.
Chester gas board Director Richard Hall bought an Empire gas heater for $1,035 in 2019, listing an address of one of his investment properties, a receipt shows.
York gas board member Michael Drummond received a $247.50 installation discount in 2019 for a water heater, and fellow board member Ellen Weir snared a $1,276 discount for installation of a Rinnai tankless water heater in October.
Because of a loophole in state ethics laws, the governor-appointed board members of these authorities don't have to report these benefits to the Ethics Commission as elected officials do.
In 2019, the Lancaster County Natural Gas Authority shelled out $2,247 for a Miroku 20-gauge shotgun for a retirement gift to one of the executives. A spokesman said the retiring general manager had 23 years of experience. “This was a small amount to pay to show appreciation for a job well done.”
At the York County Natural Gas Authority, its top executive, James Sprouse, used the agency’s credit card on car washes, roughly every two or three weeks, adding up to $447 over two years. A spokesman said the authority requires all company vehicles to be maintained, including appearance. Sprouse's company vehicle is a 2019 Chevy Silverado 1500. According to his latest state ethics filing, Sprouse made more than $250,000.
Board and staff from the three gas authorities in Chester, Lancaster and York charged tens of thousands of dollars for trips and conferences to another government body, Patriots Energy Group, further clouding the agencies' spending pictures.
The three authorities created this fourth public entity in 2003, hoping to increase their overall buying power and lower costs.
But a look at Patriots Energy Group spending records shows it also served as a money funnel for board and staff trips.
For instance, during a conference in 2018 in Portland, Ore., a Lancaster gas authority executive used a Patriots Energy Group credit card to charge $613 in one day at three vineyards.
Patriots Energy Group later billed the Lancaster gas authority back for those and more than $27,000 other charges associated with the Portland conference.
Executives of the authorities played lots of golf, locally and out of state, charging ratepayers for their trips to the links. For instance, during a winter trip to Panama City, Fla., in 2019, receipts show. Fort Hill’s CEO Ken Porter played three mornings in a row: twice at Camp Creek Golf Club and once at Shark's Tooth Golf Club. Each time, $117 was put on the agency’s credit card.
Porter explained: “I played golf with other gas executives where we discussed trends in the industry, services offered by other gas providers and the authority’s desire to meet needs of industrial customers by starting a gas transportation program.”
The state Freedom of Information Act requires public bodies to post agendas and keep minutes of all meetings, whether action is taken or not.
In 2019, the Chester board held a retreat at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, racking up more than $31,000 in charges. The agency’s lawyer, Paul Dillingham, said the agency notified the public as required. The Post and Courier asked about the minutes.
Dillingham eventually provided a copy, but it had incorrect dates, pegging the meeting in 2020, not 2019.
Confronted with the error, Dillingham acknowledged that the minutes were wrong and that they'd been drafted recently to show that the board hadn't taken any action.
— Compiled by Tony Bartelme