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Rate case settlement lowers Kemper cost cap (Updated with rate info)

January 24th, 2013 No comments

Mississippi Power Co. and the Mississippi Public Service Commission have come to an agreement that allows the utility to ask for construction-work-in-progress funds for the Kemper County Coal plant.

MPC had appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court over the summer after commissioners denied a request for a 13 percent rate increase that would have generated about $58 million in CWIP money. Commissioners said then they would not entertain anymore rate increases related to the plant until the state’s high court had ruled on the litigation surrounding the project.

In the settlement, commissioners made no promise that they would approve CWIP. Settlement terms also lowered the hard cap of the plant from $2.88 billion to $2.4 billion and provided ratepayers a 10 percent royalty share in the plant’s TRIG technology. It also stipulated that, in the event commissioners grant CWIP, that money would essentially be held in escrow, and would only flow to the company if the supreme court clears the way for the project to proceed. If that court strikes down the plant, the CWIP money would return to MPC’s 186,000 ratepayers.

Mississippi Power has 30 days to ask for revenue recovery, the amount of which cannot exceed $172 million.

Southern District Commissioner Leonard Bentz and Central District Commissioner Lynn Posey voted to approve the settlement. Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley voted against it.

“I’ve stuck to my guns on $2.4 billion from the very beginning,” said Bentz, whose district includes the vast majority of MPC ratepayers. “Short of the sky falling, they won’t get one penny over $2.4 billion.”

Presley expressed concern that the settlement would still force ratepayers to pay for the plant before it was operational. MPC expects the plant to start generation in May 2014.

“It’s the same scenario I’ve had concerns over,” he said. “Ratepayers shouldn’t have to pay for something until it’s useful to them.”

Supreme court justices had scheduled for Monday afternoon a hearing on the dispute between MCP and the PSC. Even though Thursday’s settlement technically ends any disagreement between the two, justices could still decide to move forward with Monday’s oral argument. It was unclear if Thomas Blanton, a MPC ratepayer from Hattiesburg who has challenged the constitutionality of the 2008 law that authorized CWIP, would still get to argue that point Monday.

The head of the Mississippi Sierra Club, which has long opposed the plant and still has active litigation against it, said Thursday afternoon that the settlement does nothing to protect ratepayers.

“If the TRIG technology turns out to be useless, that’s not much of a deal,” said Louie Miller, referring to the ratepayers receiving 10 percent of TIRG royalties over 30 years. “Even Mississippi Power has said they’re not 100 percent certain that the plant’s technology will work on the first day of operation.”

Bentz said Thursday’s settlement could potentially lower the rate impact of the plant. He has said through the process that he expects rate increases to peak between 20 and 28 percent before falling.

“I think this will at least put rate increases at the lower end of that, possibly even lower,” Bentz said.

Mississippi Power filed documents with the PSC in 2009 that said rate impacts would peak at 45 percent. The PSC order granting the plant’s certificate of public convenience and necessity said rate increases would peak at a touch over 30 percent before falling.

Mississippi Power’s most recent rate impact estimates have fallen below that, with the company saying sales of the plant’s by-products have come in higher than originally thought. [Editor’s note: Southern Co. officials said on an analyst call Friday morning that if the PSC grants the full $172 million in CWIP funds, it would raise MPC customer rates 21 percent.]

The settlement includes a phased-in rate plan that would run the first seven years the plant was in operation.  Common methods of rate recovery allow utilities to recover the bulk of costs up front. Spreading that out over seven years, Bentz said, would minimize the impact to ratepayers.

There was some question Thursday whether current statute allowed a phased-in rate plan, or if legislation would be required to authorize it.

The utility can opt out of the settlement if it is determined the PSC does not have the legal authority to implement a phased-in rate plan. If it’s determined there is a need for legislation to establish that authority, and the legislation fails to become law, the utility can opt out of the settlement.

The company can also opt out if it is unable to secure alternative financing for any project costs not otherwise recoverable by ratemaking proceedings.

MPC CEO Ed Day said in a press release that the settlement was “a win for both this state and our customers.”

Gill remembered for rural advocacy, kind demeanor

October 19th, 2012 No comments

Among his many passions, there were two of Joel Gill’s that surfaced more often than the others – his love of Mississippi’s rural communities and his desire to help Mississippi cattlemen.

Gill, the Pickens mayor who ran as a Democrat for Congress in 2008 and for agriculture commissioner last year, was killed in a car wreck Thursday evening in Holmes County. Details of the wreck were not available from the Mississippi Highway Patrol Friday morning, but Jackson television station WAPT reported that Gill hit a tree on Highway 17.

Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said Gill was one of the few politicians running for an office that covered a large district (or in the case of ag commissioner, the entire state) who made it a point to visit as many rural communities as he could, and not concentrate on the larger voter clusters.

“One of the things that he always talked about was how small, little rural communities get forgotten about,” Presley said.

Presley said he ran into Gill last year at the volunteer fire department in Cardsville, a tiny spot on the map in Itawamba County. Gill was there asking for votes as part of his run against current ag commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith, who ended up winning handily.

“You have to admire somebody who would take on running for a statewide office and just get in his vehicle and go out and ask for votes, knowing full well he was up against a wall of money and a wall of advertisements,” Presley said. “He believed doing that was just important as putting an advertisement on TV.

“And what a fine fellow,” Presley continued. “He was a man that was in it for all the right reasons. It wasn’t about Joel Gill, it was about the public. What a great credit for being staunch in his beliefs, but not being offensive about it. He was firm in what he believed was right, but he never tried to hurt anybody with it. Never shied away from being a Democrat, never shied away from being a rural advocate, but he was never in your face. All of us, Brandon Presley included, could learn from that. He was a gentle, kind, Christian man.”

Politics wasn’t all Gill did. He and his brother started running the family cattle business, Mississippi Order Buyers Inc., in the late 1970s. Gill served on the Mississippi Beef Council and was president of the Mississippi Livestock Markets Association.

One of his pet issues was the country of origin labeling law that requires retailers to provide county-of-origin labeling on fresh beef, pork and lamb.

“He worked long and hard on that,” said Sammy Blossom, executive director of the Mississippi Beef Council.

Blossom said Gill almost never missed a meeting of the Beef Council in his 20 years of service to the organization.

“He was so passionate about his beliefs and his philosophy,” Blossom said.

Gill is survived by his wife, two children and four grandchildren. Funeral arrangements had not been finalized Friday morning.

PSC issues record fine against telemarketers

September 11th, 2012 No comments

The Mississippi Public Service Commission voted 3-0 Tuesday morning to levy $5.7 million in fines for four telemarketers for violating the state’s No Call Law.

It’s the largest fine since the law took effect in 2003.

Two companies and an individual, all based in Arizona, were hit with fines totaling $5.7 million. Press releases from Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley and Southern District Commissioner Leonard Bentz said the telemarketers had been the target of nearly 400 complaints ranging from failing to register with the PSC to calling people on the No Call List to calling outside appointed times.

“I intend to collect this debt by any means possible, whether it is by fines, or by taking any assets,” Bentz said.

Said Presley: “We are serious about enforcing the Mississippi Do-Not-Call law and protecting the people of our state from unwanted telemarketing calls.”

To compare, in May the Commission fined a California man and his companies $945,000 for 189 violations of the No Call Law. Last month, a single violation cost a Nevada company $20,000.

 

Presley to file challenge to new oversight removal law

July 3rd, 2012 No comments

Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley intends to challenge the constitutionality of a new law that removes the “carrier of last resort” mandate from AT&T and other layers of oversight from phone companies operating in Mississippi.

Presley, the Commission’s lone Democrat, said in an interview Monday that he sees the potential for rural customers to have their landline phone service eliminated, now that AT&T is no longer mandated by law to provide service to those areas. Presley also said the law’s removing single-line phone service rates from PSC jurisdiction violates the Mississippi Constitution.

Specifically, Presley cites Article 7, Section 186, which requires the Legislature to pass laws that allow for the “supervision” of telephone companies, among others, either by a commission or other entity.

“I intend to challenge this on behalf of little communities like Randolph and Dennis and Dumas – little places where customers have been paying a phone bill all these years, and they don’t deserve to have the rug jerked out from under them or have to pay out the nose is this bill stands,” Presley said.

Presley, who is challenging the bill as a private citizen and not in his capacity as a public service commissioner, said he hopes to file court papers in Hinds County Circuit Court either late this week or early next week.

Beckett: PSC jurisdiction will be included in HB 825

February 29th, 2012 No comments

The House Public Utilities Committee Wednesday morning tabled HB 825, a bill that has caused quite a bit of hue and cry over the past few days.

Most of that has come from members of the Public Service Commission, who were upset that it would strip them of jurisdiction over customer complaints related to AT&T. Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley and Southern District Commissioner Leonard Bentz have led the charge on that front.

Public Utilities chairman Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, said he hoped to hold another committee meeting Thursday afternoon after the House adjourns to take it up again. The committee decided to table the bill after a flurry of amendments.

Beckett told reporters that the PSC regaining jurisdiction over AT&T customer complaints will be “part of the deal” in any version of the bill that eventually clears committee and is sent to the House floor.

“That’s their biggest concern, and it’s the biggest concern I’ve heard from other members,” Beckett said.

What the bill does not do is require AT&T to serve as a “carrier of last resort” in rural areas. It also doesn’t require AT&T to file service data with the PSC.

“It’s a competitive market,” Beckett said. “I don’t see them (AT&T) going out here and flipping the switch and unhooking customers. I think they’ll continue to provide that, and as technology changes I think there will be more and more opportunities for people to get service.”

Mayo Flynt, president of AT&T Mississippi, declined to talk to reporters Wednesday morning.

Bentz, Presley agree: AT&T oversight removal bill bad business

February 24th, 2012 1 comment

The Mississippi Public Service Commission is not particularly known for agreeing on a whole lot.

The opposite of that is true when it comes to House Bill 825. The bill, filed by Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, has been referred to the Public Utilities Committee, which Beckett chairs.

What the bill would do is essentially remove a lot of functions AT&T performs from PSC jurisdiction. Television and radio stations already enjoy this exemption. The legislation would extend it to AT&T, and shift that oversight to the federal government. That’s the simple explanation, anyway.

Commissioners Leonard Bentz, a Republican who represents the Southern District; and Brandon Presley, a Democrat representing the Northern District, both have issued lengthy statements that generally paint the bill as one of the worst ideas to circulate around the Capitol in some time. That’s significant, because Bentz and Presley don’t see eye to eye all that often.

Presley called it a “corporate wish list.” Bentz said it would make AT&T’s customer service operations — which have become infamous for their ability to frustrate customers — worse.

One thing is certain. Beckett, since he wrote the bill, will surely air it in front of the Public Utilities Committee. You can bet there will be some lawmakers who hear from folks who don’t like this.

Statements in full from Bentz and Presley:

Public Service Commission Chairman Leonard Bentz announced today his opposition to HB 825, which would remove all oversight which the Mississippi Public Service Commission has over AT&T.

 “This is a very bad bill for consumers in Mississippi,” Commissioner Bentz stated. “Even though AT&T will tell you that the oversight that we [PSC] have is limited, the little we do have is piece of mind for the consumers.”

“You don’t have to think very long to understand why this bill is bad. Think back to last time you called in a problem to AT&T and the lack of customer service you received. This bill would make it worse. It is important to understand AT&T will lead you to believe this bill will affect only a small number of customers, but that is not so. As it stands right now, all customers with AT&T have the ability to file complaints with the Public Service Commission, and have the PSC on their side to help them navigate the system. The bill clearly states customer appeals will be removed from the PSC jurisdiction.

“Further, AT&T states they are at a competitive disadvantage. How can you be at a disadvantage when you own more infrastructure and receive more Universal Service Fund monies than any other telecommunication company? The bill would also limit the Commission’s oversight of the Universal Service Fund. This is a critical fund in which AT&T receives monies to invest in their infrastructure. In the proposed bill this would give the oversight to the federal government,” Bentz added.

“The avenue for customer complaint appeals to the PSC will also be removed. I guess if a consumer had a complaint they could call the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  If AT&T can explain to me how this bill will build better customer service by calling a Washington bureaucrat versus an elected Mississippian, I will be their biggest cheerleader,” Bentz said.

“I hope legislators reviewing this AT&T bill (HB 825) will contact the PSC and give us an opportunity for input. AT&T employs great employees in Mississippi and I am sure they will tell you AT&T has become more and more like a corporate run robot organization. If AT&T wants a competitive advantage, I have three recommendations. Provide a quality service, listen to your customers and treat your customers as clients. And that does not take any legislation to accomplish.” Bentz concluded.

And here’s Presley’s:

Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said today that House Bill 825 would totally strip the PSC of any authority to hold AT&T accountable for rate increases and lousy landline and cell phone coverage. Presley said the bill was requested by AT&T as retaliation against the PSC for denying a rate increase and for complaining of poor cellular and residential phone service. The PSC won a case in the Mississippi Supreme Court to limit charges to customers after AT&T appealed the PSC’s ruling.

“This bill is a corporate wish list that gives AT&T the permission to run over and take advantage of every single customer in Mississippi and no one can say one thing to them about it.” Presley said. “Complaints against AT&T have gone up dramatically over the past few years, yet this bill rewards them by taking the cop off the beat that is there to protect customers”

“It is hard to believe that the Legislature could honestly think that a company with such a terrible track record should be taken out from under the PSC’s authority” Presley added.

Presley said the Legislature passed the first phase of deregulation in 2006 an since then complaints to the Commission about billing errors, poor service and the like have risen from 1,735 in 2006 to 4,361 in 2011 an increase of over 150% .“This is evidence enough of why this bill is bad for consumers”.

Along with removing all of the Public Service Commission’s authority to investigate abuses, extortion and customer complaints, House Bill 825 also removes the Commission’s authority to designate conditions for AT&T’s receiving of millions in federal funds to promote rural cell phone service. Presley said the Commission’s authority to place conditions on those dollars has been the main tool to increase cell phone coverage in rural counties. “Rural Mississippi’s interest are gutted in this bill.” Presley said.

Presley said there should be extensive hearings held on this matter. “AT&T and their high paid lobbyists are spreading lies all around the Capitol, the Legislature should listen to the regulators who are here to protect the public.”