2 more firefighter families file suits

Louis Mulkey

Three years ago, South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. raised its general rates by 5.5 percent, after initially floating the idea of raising them 7.5 percent.

In 2004, the company agreed to forgo a 5.7 percent increase in exchange for state approval on a 2.89 percent rate hike.

And way back in August 2002, SCE&G proposed raising rates by 8.7 percent before agreeing to increase them by only 5.7 percent.

So is it any surprise that its request this year to raise rates by nearly 10 percent is now down to 6.5 percent and falling fast?

Cynics might say this is a variation on the old game we used to play with dad -- when you need $5, ask for $20.

Now, SCE&G told The Post and Courier's Warren Wise last week that it's not like that at all. The rate hike is needed to pay for federal environmental mandates, equipment upgrades and shareholders' returns, among other things. SCE&G spokesmen said that the utility does not, as some critics suggest, pad its requests to the Public Service Commission.

Dukes Scott, executive director of the state's Office of Regulatory Staff (which reviews such requests), would not suggest that any utilities engage in such mathematical hedging. But he's a realist too.

"I don't think they expected to get that" 9.52 percent increase, he said.

Why would they? The company hasn't gotten approval for an initially proposed rate increase since 1971.

A little off the top

Scott and his staff review utilities' rate increase requests with an eye toward a compromise that does three things: protects consumers, maintains the company's financial health and promotes jobs and economic development.

It's a big job, but these guys are comprehensive. They look at a company's spending practices, what it needs to have financial integrity. They also aren't shy about making suggestions. For instance, the current SCE&G rate hike proposal includes bonuses for some employees.

Pardon us South Carolinians -- currently 12.2 percent unemployed and frequently furloughed -- if we don't really want to pay $10 a month to fund someone else's pat on the back.

Among the suggestions the Office of Regulatory Staff made was this one: If the company wants to pay bonuses, the money should come out of the shareholders' profits, not the customers' pockets.

And you thought there was no common sense in government.

Balancing act

Now, power rates are going up -- no way to avoid it. SCE&G isn't lying; it does have increasing costs and can't eat every expense. Most people wouldn't begrudge them that.

After all, we are not communists (well, most of us aren't).

But be glad there are people attempting the delicate balancing act of looking out for both consumers and companies. And remember it the next time some politician -- with campaign contributions cascading from his pockets -- tells you he wants to cut out all those horrible government regulations.

Sure, many regulations are burdensome, put a damper on business and give the government too much power.

But some of them are all that stands between you and an $800 power bill.