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Bentz, new to PSC, tackling post-storm rate challenges

Leonard Bentz, a young Republican legislator from Biloxi, was appointed to the Mississippi Public Service Commission in April to fill the unexpired term of Southern District Commissioner Michael Callahan. Bentz will serve through December 2007 and plans to run for a full term.

He was born in Gulfport and graduated from Biloxi High School. He attended Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi’s Law Enforcement Training Academy.

Bentz, 34, worked as a deputy for the Harrison County Sheriff and as a utility investigator for the Public Service Commission. In 2003, he was elected a state representative for the 116th legislative district.

The PSC is made up of three elected commissioners who regulate BellSouth, private water companies, natural gas companies and investor-owned electric power companies. It provides some guidelines for electric power associations, but does not set those rates. Also, the commission does not regulate cellular telephone and cable television companies.

Regular meetings are on the first Tuesday of each month and hearings are held throughout the month.

Bentz and his wife, Amber Fayard Bentz, are the parents of two sons, Len and Hunter, and are active in St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

Recently, the new commissioner took time to answer questions for the Mississippi Business Journal.

MBJ: Why did you accept Gov. Haley Barbour’s appointment to the PSC?

LB: I knew it would be a great challenge, especially with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but I decided to take it after praying about it and having long discussions with my family. I felt I had the background for the job.

MBJ: Have you been surprised that being a commissioner is different from being an employee of the PSC?

LB: Yes. I thought I knew a lot about it, but sitting on the bench is different and even more so now in these post-Katrina days. The biggest surprise is just trying to get a grasp on all the numbers shot at us in these hearings. We’re taking all the information and making good judgment calls; keeping it all balanced out. We have a stand-alone staff that does audits and gathers information. The last thing I want to do now is tell people recovering from the storm that their electric rates are going to be raised.

MBJ: Will there be rate increases?

LB: We’re already in a balancing act stage. Through Sen. Cochran and others in Washington and Gov. Barbour a lot of the Community Development Block Grant money is going into rates; $360 million is going to storm restoration costs that by law utility companies can recoup from rate payers.
We will still have a shortfall of $30 to $40 million, but we can also bond some money through the state Legislature that will help rate payers, so we have several tools we can use.

MBJ: Will rate increases be for rate payers all over the state?

LB: Yes, all over the state. Mississippi Power Company extends beyond the coastal area. Entergy is throughout the state and had damage, too.

MBJ: Are you hearing from rate payers?

LB: I’m getting some feedback from rate payers and I’m notifying my constituents about this issue. I believe rate payers are aware of it. People were impressed by the way the power companies responded and know there will be some increase. But, there will be less because of the grant.

MBJ: When will rate increases take place?

LB: We’re still waiting on some orders and hearings are held for each company’s request.
I’m not sure when the new rates will go into effect. It should be within the next couple of months.

MBJ: What can we expect from the commission?

LB: I hope you can see good decisions that help rate payers and are fair to the power companies. I haven’t heard any dire comments from the companies and haven’t felt any pressure from them.

MBJ: What other issues are facing the PSC at this time?

LB: The storm recovery is the biggest thing, but the BellSouth merger is a hot topic too. Also, we’re hoping and praying fuel costs stay down, not just gasoline but natural gas, too.

MBJ: Do you have political aspirations beyond the PSC?

LB: Not at this time. I want to run for the Public Service Commission and maybe retire from that. When I was elected to the Legislature, I thought I would retire from that, too. I listen to the Lord and follow his direction as to what I should do.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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