SCE&G: Rate hikes and profits

SCANA’s recently announced profit increase is wonderful news — for stockholders, that is. For its SCE&G customers? A reason to fume.

SCANA’s recently announced profit increase is wonderful news — for stockholders, that is.

For its SCE&G customers? A reason to fume.

An unpopular — and apparently largely unwarranted — rate hike imposed on customers helped make it possible for SCANA to clear $30 million more for the first quarter of this year than the same period a year ago.

That means stockholders will enjoy a 50 3/4-cent per share dividend. Lucky them.

And it likely means the company’s top brass can feel comfortable that their salaries are safe.

Not that they seem to have been in jeopardy. In 2012, CEO, COO and president K.B. Marsh was paid almost $5 million — up more than comfortably, we’d say, from 2011’s pay of $2.6 million.

The top executive at Santee Cooper has to settle for his third year at $416,667 while SCANA’s other top executives were paid $2.1 million, $1.9 million, $1.7 million and $1.2 million.

But the pretty profit means SCE&G consumers are even more strapped to cover their basic power bills. And they can’t just switch to another provider like Berkeley Electric or Santee Cooper, which has considerably lower rates. SCE&G enjoys a monopoly in the areas it serves.

SCE&G says it has to charge more to ensure efficiency. It initially wanted a 6.61 percent increase, dropped its request to 4.23 percent and was allowed a 1.8 percent hike.

Critics say SCE&G is overbuilding and contend that the company also made some bad business decisions that have cost money.

And while they hardly register in the immense SCANA budget, $50 glasses of scotch and expensive steak dinners charged to the company haven’t exactly signaled to customers that the company is being careful with its assets, or its bookkeeping.

The company has further demonstrated its disregard for the public by undermining efforts to install solar energy panels to lower power bills, albeit only slightly.

As part of the process for deciding on the SCE&G rate hike, the Public Service Commission held public meetings throughout the state. At every one, consumers pleaded. They talked about the hardships they faced — both individuals and businesses. And the rates were hiked anyway.

South Carolina needs fiscally sound utilities able to deliver power efficiently and consistently.

But somewhere there seems to be a disconnect when rates go up regularly to cover SCANA’s needs, and SCANA’s profits go ever higher.

The PSC is supposed to safeguard the public’s interest. Its members need to understand complex financial information and be willing to face down powerful lobbies representing utilities.

The Legislature Wednesday filled four seats on the PSC. Three incumbents won overwhelmingly. The fourth commissioner retired, so there was no incumbent to fill that seat.

Too bad there were only 11 votes for Sarah Nuckles, a contender who, when she was a member of the state highway commission, proved unafraid to stand up to the old guard, even if it meant annoying her fellow commissioners.

SCE&G customers don’t have the leverage to convince the company to keep their rates down.

They need an independent, smart and resolute Public Service Commission.