Southern District Public Service Commissioner Leonard Bentz leaned into a radio reporter’s microphone Tuesday morning in his office, and sang the first few bars of Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.”
It wasn’t bad. For Bentz, it must have felt awfully good, even though he said the appearance of shedding years of coal plant-related stress was “just a show.”
Bentz had just finished what was likely his final meeting as a member of the Mississippi Public Service Commission. Though he would not reveal an exact timetable for his departure, he will probably have started his new role as executive director of the South Mississippi Planning and Development District by Sept. 10, when the PSC meets again.
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Bentz has served on the PSC since 2006, when former Gov. Haley Barbour appointed him to fill the unexpired term of former Southern District commissioner Michael Callahan. Bentz was re-elected in 2007 and 2011.
Bentz’ tenure — the longest in the Southern District since Lynn Havens served from 1980-88 — will be defined by Mississippi Power Co.’s Kemper County coal plant. Bentz, whose district holds the vast majority of the utility’s 190,000 ratepayers, has been the preferred target of the plant’s opponents. The Sierra Club has criticized Bentz’ support of the plant. The environmental advocacy organization has long opposed it, calling it an unnecessary and expensive environmental danger. The organization, in an early August press release, called Bentz’ decision to leave the PSC “cowardly.”
That’s one example of the Kemper rhetoric Bentz said had gotten “way too personal.”
The plant is scheduled to begin commercial operation in May 2014. The project’s certificate of public convenience and necessity has twice been approved by the PSC, the first one invalidated by the Mississippi Supreme Court for having insufficient citations from the record of proceedings before commissioners.
Those proceedings included a handful of public comment hearings in which the majority of those who spoke were Mississippi Power ratepayers who lived in Bentz’ district. Their comments were often pointed, sometimes hostile, and were almost always directed at Bentz. One Ocean Springs resident in a hearing last year accused Bentz of being a puppet for the utility, and told him to “sleep well.”
Their complaints were fear-driven, centered on the possibility their power bills would spiral out of sight once the plant came online.
For his part, Bentz said the settlement agreement Mississippi Power and the PSC reached last year — the result of litigation after regulators denied a rate increase associated with the plant — that capped at $2.4 billion the construction costs the utility could recoup from ratepayers will hold any rate increases under 20 percent for the life of the plant. That figure applies to residential customers who use 1,000 kilowatts hours of electricity per month.
“I own Kemper,” Bentz said Tuesday. “It’s mine. I believe in it. I support it. I think it’s the right thing to do, so there’s no running away. We’ve done our jobs. When you have leadership, that’s when you put cost caps on it like we did.”
Since the cap was made part of the settlement, Mississippi Power has revealed over $1 billion in cost overruns at Kemper, and said the utility’s shareholders would pay for them. Legislation passed during the 2012 session allows the utility to recover up to $1 billion in overruns as part of a bond package. Bentz said while that bill circulated through the Capitol that he did not support it.
“At the end of the day, doing the right thing is what matters,” Bentz said of his support for the Kemper, and the cost caps associated with it.
His replacement will be confronted sometime next year with prudency reviews for the project, in which the utility will have to justify certain costs before commissioners will allow it to pass them to ratepayers.
“It’s imperative” the new commissioner keep in place the $2.4 billion cap, Bentz said. “Absolutely imperative.”
Bentz said SMPDD board members approached him several months ago about the job. “I really put it to the side, until I started having discussions with my family,” he said. “I thought about it, prayed about it, and realized it would be an opportunity for me to go back to South Mississippi and help in the economic development realm, help elderly people and seniors, and put smiles on people’s faces.”
Bentz said he made the decision to pursue the job within the past six weeks or so. “But I had been thinking about it for a long time.”
His salary will nearly double, rising to $150,000 from $78,000. The SMPDD’s board revised the job qualifications, removing the mandate that the executive director have a college degree. Bentz, who attended the University of Southern Mississippi but did not graduate, denied that the provision was made solely to benefit him. He called the insinuation – and the suggestion that Bentz’ father’s role as SMPDD board secretary created the appearance of nepotism – unfair. Bentz’ father has since resigned from his position, as part of an agreement for his son getting the executive director’s job.
“I anticipated it,” Bentz said of the criticism of SMPDD’s selection process. “I don’t believe it was fair, but we’re big boys. It was wrong. I filed requests with the Ethics Commission. I’m not going to do anything that’s not above board. It’s in the past. We’ve got to quit worrying about what’s happened, and look to move Mississippi forward.”
>> CONTINUE READING: No timetable for replacing Bentz