Orangeburg Times and Democrat
July 29, 2019
Santee Cooper needs to be sold
By CRAIG ASCUE, Owner/Operator of Ascue’s Auto Body & Paint Shop in Mt. Pleasant, SC.
One of the most significant lessons my father taught me can be boiled down to two simple words: attitude and accountability.
My father was a self-made businessman, the kind of passionate small business owner that is the lifeblood of any economy. Growing up, watching him run his collision repair business, the grit and sweat he put into it, I came to learn that if you want to be successful, you have to have a good attitude and hold yourself accountable for your product. I watched how my father respected the trust his employees and customers placed in him, and I saw him rise to the occasion to meet and exceed those expectations every time.
In my view, this is exactly the kind of attitude and accountability that I find to be severely lacking in the leadership of Santee Cooper, the state-owned electric utility.
As a second-generation small business owner, Santee Cooper’s actions are not only troubling — they are downright baffling. Running a business may be a complex endeavor in many ways, but some things are cut and dry.
The fact that the leadership of Santee Cooper managed to build up $8 billion in debt is an almost impressive level of incompetency. And it would be almost comical were it not for the fact that the 177,000 customers that Santee Cooper directly serves are now on the hook to pay about $6,200 in higher rates per household for those mistakes, while the 800,000 customers of the state’s 20 electric co-ops that buy power from Santee Cooper are now contractually obligated to pay about $4,200 in higher rates.
That’s not accountability. That’s passing the buck on to average citizens and small business, many of whom are struggling and just trying to do the best they can. But no one at Santee Cooper seems to be looking out for them.
To add insult to injury, when Santee Cooper’s former CEO Lonnie Carter was asked why the utility failed on its costly nuclear plant expansion that resulted in those billions of dollars in debt, his response was to skirt blame. “First of all,” Carter said, “I would not say that the project failed.” Carter then announced his retirement and lives comfortably on $800,000 a year in retirement benefits for the rest of his life.
This is an almost unfathomable abdication of responsibility.
How can such a thing happen? Because South Carolina is one of just a few states with a government-run utility like Santee Cooper. And what does a state government agency know about running an electric utility? Apparently far too little.
Santee Cooper is a monopoly that has choked out innovation and operates without outside oversight of the rates it charges. For these reasons and more, Santee Cooper needs to be sold to an experienced and qualified electric utility company. Only then will its customers be free of the debt the utility’s leaders have put upon them, and only then will rates to truly go down and innovation be able to thrive.
As a business owner, I know full well the impact lower rates will have on small business customers. Lower rates mean more raises and health benefits for employees. Lower rates mean we can invest in new equipment and technology to grow and expand our businesses. These are all boons for the economy, no matter which way you look at them.
As for Santee Cooper, I have no doubt there are intelligent, well-meaning engineers and businesspeople working at the utility. But the way the utility is currently structured, those employees have no way of advancing to true leadership positions, because Santee Cooper has always been run by political insiders. The company operates with little transparency or oversight. Selling will allow many people, including more African Americans, to finally offer their skills in a way that will improve the utility.
What I hear continually from friends in the small business community is that the Santee Cooper status quo cannot continue. The utility must change, because it’s already falling apart.