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Service remains central issue

Business not surprised by PSC findings

Public Service Commissioner Nielsen Cochran said Entergy`s slow response to return power to customers in last December`s snowstorm just triggered the ongoing investigation that led to a proposed policy to make the electric utilities company more accountable.

“I expect the PSC to adopt a six-point plan to make Entergy more responsive,” said Cochran.

Of eight electric utility companies that responded to the Dec. 14 snowstorm that caused widespread outages in central Mississippi, all but one had 100% restored the same day, Cochran said.

“One company had 17% outage, another had 15%, while others had in the neighborhood of 8% to 13%,” Cochran said. “By comparison, 5% of Entergy`s customers were left without power and it took two and a half days to have it all restored.”

During the snowstorm, Entergy hired 226 contract workers to supplement its staff of 194 service workers. “By contrast, other companies only contracted a total of two crews,” Cochran said.

Between 1993 and 1997, Entergy`s number of service workers declined from 356 to 194, and its budget per customer for line maintenance was cut from $31.62 to $23.84. During the same time period, Mississippi Power Company increased its work force from 158 to 164, and slightly decreased its per-customer line maintenance budget from $158.76 to $152.35, according to PSC figures.

Ed Bryson, director of communications for Entergy, said the company acknowledges service needs to be improved.

“We plan to improve reliability with more aggressive tree-trimming and shift resources to access problem areas,” Bryson said.

Business interests continue

push for power deregulation

Jerry McBride, president of Mississippi Manufacturers Association, said his organization`s board of directors has a policy to support deregulation.

“People are upset about the delivery of electricity,” said McBride. “When there`s an outage – from lightning, blown transformers, or whatever – it`s not getting turned on as rapidly as it should.”

In Mississippi, Entergy covers the western part of the state from Tunica to Natchez. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which would require deregulation at a federal level, provides electricity in the northeast section of the state. Mississippi Power Company, a division of The Southern Company of Atlanta, provides service in south Mississippi. Rural areas have electric power associations, said McBride.

McBride received a report from one of his members about a $3,000 loss because of a recent two-hour power outage. The member had to pay 150 employees during the wait time, he said.

Cochran met with about 25 catfish farmers in Belzoni who were concerned about the possibility of further outages, he said.

“Their main concern surrounded an incident where a farmer took a $75,000 loss because of an extended loss of power to aerators at the ponds,” Cochran said. “If they lost power again, they want to be assured someone will be available in a fairly reasonable length of time to make repairs.”

Within a 50-mile radius of Belzoni, more than half the nation`s catfish are produced in ponds, processing plants, feed mills and hatcheries totally dependent on electricity.

“If we don`t do something similar to deregulation, Mississippi businesses will be at a disadvantage,” McBride said.

Service problems and pending deregulation are only indirectly related issues, Bryson said.

Outages an inconvenience but

can end up costing you, too

James Burrell, 53, a citizen who has experienced power outages for 13 days in a 45-day period in his home in Sallis, has circulated a petition in the small communities of Sallis, McAdams, Zemely and Newport. He has already garnered several hundred signatures by placing them in small country stores, restaurants and churches, and plans to take them to the public service commissioner in Tupelo.

“I feel like a small fish in a large ocean,” Burrell said.

While only two or three states have deregulation, many states are looking into it. “There`s a direct movement toward retail competition,” Cochran said.

Entergy is a strong supporter of competition, Bryson said.

“We need to develop a plan in Mississippi right now. We need to know what the future will be like because service is so important. Mississippi is ahead of most states on this issue and that`s good. But it should be done fairly and carefully, rates should not go up for any group, and competition should have the same rules,” he said.

Last April, the PSC had a hearing to determine whether a plan to restructure the industry would be appropriate. The public utility staff came up with a proposal and a timetable, Cochran said.

“This past April, we discussed a proposed plan which would allow customers to choose their electric supplier by the year 2000, and full retail competition by the year 2001,” Cochran said. “The year 2000 would be a year to solidify contracts.”

And the issues are…

Several issues must first be considered.

For example, the Legislature must address the question of taxes in the new competitive environment and pass legislation enabling the commission to move forward with competition, Cochran said.

“The taxes and structure of taxes in a monopoly environment don`t reflect true competition as it would relate to independent power producers that may be involved in supplying electrical services,” Cochran said.”We don`t have the authority to impose a plan on anybody. On June 17, we submitted a revised proposed transition plan for retail competition in the electrical industry. But there are still many questions and issues which have to be resolved.”

About Lynne W. Jeter

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