Wampee board meeting (copy)

Santee Cooper just-departed CEO said the state-owned utility wouldn't pay for an evaluation of bids to sell the state-owned utility — even as the Santee Cooper board approved extremely generous salaries to its new management. Thad Moore/Staff

In retrospect, it seems pretty clear that what people this spring thought of as a directive for Santee Cooper not to sabotage the Legislature’s efforts to sell the state-owned utility also obligated it to pay for the evaluation process: “Santee Cooper is directed to provide any and all resources necessary to assist in the process for competitive bids and management proposals, as well as the evaluation of the bids and management proposals.”

Still, it feels a little underhanded to use that language as a funding mechanism when legislators never talked openly about that possibility — even as they talked openly about spending $20 million for investment bankers to evaluate proposals to purchase the utility.

Of course, it also feels a little underhanded for Santee Cooper to pay new CEO Mark Bonsall up to $1.4 million for the next year, and to give him the impression that a big part of  his job will be to act as, essentially, a lobbyist, trying to convince the Legislature to not sell Santee Cooper.

It feels a little underhanded too for the board to bring in a second-in-command, for a minimum of $560,000 — more than retired CEO Lonnie Carter made — in order to,  as The Post and Courier’s Andrew Brown put it, “lead the utility’s long-term planning efforts.”

Long-term planning efforts? Seriously?

We don’t believe that Santee Cooper needs to just sit around waiting for the Legislature to decide whether to sell it. The utility needs to be working aggressively to cut costs — and to avoid running up non-essential new ones — in order to help relieve ratepayers of some of the $4 billion that the utility is adding to their power bills for the two nuclear reactors it abandoned mid-construction. So it needs to be led by someone who will shake up the insular, change-resistant utility that focuses far too much on politics and far too little on providing energy to its customers at the best price possible. Not by a lobbyist.

Moreover,  there’s a good chance Santee Cooper will cease to exist in something less than the long term. That means the $560,000 spent on long-term planning is just that much more money thrown down a rat hole.

It’s against the backdrop of this extremely expensive personnel move that we learn from The State newspaper in Columbia that now-former interim CEO James Brogdon has declared that the utility won’t belly up the $15 million that Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman told it to pay for the investment banker. And if it’s forced to do so, it’ll take that money out of the $17 million the utility “gives” to the state each year.

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Mr. Brogdon argued that the utility can’t spend $15 million on an investment banker because it’s required by law to act in the best interests of its customers, and that complying with the law “could lead to litigation from customers, increased scrutiny from credit rating agencies, and engender criticism from public and private stakeholders.”

Too bad the utility wasn’t thinking of any of that when it continued to pour money into the doomed V.C. Summer nuclear construction project — helping nuclear partner SCE&G conceal the mounting problems from state regulators, who could have forced SCE&G to either clean up the problems or pull the plug much sooner.

Folks who want to maintain the status quo at Santee Cooper would probably be much better off paying that $15 million bill, so legislators don’t have to spend “their” (that is, taxpayers’) money — because that would make the Legislature far more likely to support a sale, whether it’s in the long-term best interests of our state or not.

Meantime, the new CEO might try dialing back his predecessor’s arrogance. That’s not something legislators appreciate in others, and frankly it’s not particularly becoming of a state agency that just blew $4 billion, and facilitated a similar fiasco by what used to be one of the state’s most important companies.

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