Santee Cooper’s $100K-plus club doubles in less than 10 years

February 26, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

As lawmakers this week consider sale and management proposals involving Santee Cooper, one issue that likely won’t get much attention is the growth in recent years of well-paid workers at the state-owned utility.

Of Santee Cooper’s approximately 1,650 full-time employees, 312, or 18.9% of the total, receive a base annual salary of $100,000 or more, according to utility records provided to The Nerve under the state Freedom of Information Act.

Throw in employer contributions for state health insurance and retirement benefits, and other perks including car allowances for 20 top executives, and the number of employees with a total annual compensation of at least $100,000 grows to 636, or 38.5% of the utility’s workforce, records show. The lowest base salary among the group is $74,553.

Santee Cooper president and CEO Mark Bonsall’s total annual compensation is $1,160,652, including a $1.1 million base salary and a $12,540 car allowance. He also is eligible to receive a maximum $250,000 “incentive opportunity” at the discretion of the utility’s board of directors, while most of the 636 employees are eligible for an additional maximum $5,800 payout if certain corporate goals are met, according to records.

Bonsall’s salary is double what former CEO Lonnie Carter was making before his 2017 retirement – which included a six-figure golden parachute – following the collapse of the $9 billion V.C. Summer nuclear construction project in Fairfield County.

And the number of Santee Cooper employees receiving a base salary of at least $100,000 has doubled since 2011, which, as The Nerve reported then, stood at 149 workers, or 8.2% of the regular workforce. The current six-figure club also is bigger compared to two years ago when The Nerve reported that 284 workers, or 16.2% of the 1,745-employee workforce, were at that salary level.

In comparison, the state per-capita income last year was $42,736, according to the S.C. Department of Revenue.

State House and Senate panels this week are considering a multibillion-dollar offer by Florida-based NextEra Energy to purchase Santee Cooper, a plan by Virginia-based Dominion Energy to manage the utility, and a third reform proposal by the utility itself.

Santee Cooper, headquartered in Moncks Corner in Berkeley County, provides electricity directly and indirectly, through the state’s 20 electric cooperatives, to about 2 million South Carolinians. The utility is overseen by a 12-member board of directors appointed by the governor after being qualified by a powerful legislatively controlled panel known as the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC).

As part of its proposal to purchase Santee Cooper, NextEra plans to reduce Santee Cooper’s current workforce by about 740 positions in a “phased approach through 2024,” NextEra spokeswoman Debbie Larsson said in an email response Tuesday to The Nerve. That represents about 45% of Santee Cooper’s current workforce.

Larsson didn’t specifically answer whether any $100,000-plus employees would lose their jobs under the proposal, though she said generally that “we believe we can achieve any necessary position reductions through eliminating open positions, voluntary attrition and offering an enhanced retirement plan,” adding, “Our final step, if necessary, would be involuntary separations.”

Larsson said some proposed job reductions would be “directly related to our clean generation plan, which involves shutting down Santee Cooper’s coal generation and adding clean generation sources.”

In an email response Tuesday, Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said the utility’s reform proposal calls for the “reduction of 116 positions” with the planned closing of the Winyah coal power plant near Georgetown.

Gore said the proposed reductions include those employees with least $100,000 in total annual compensation, though she couldn’t provide a specific number, adding, “In general the plan is to eliminate the Winyah positions gradually to give the people in them the time to retire or leave for other reasons or take another position within Santee Cooper that opens up in the interim.”

Questions about Santee Cooper’s future took on more urgency following the failed V.C. Summer project, a partnership between Santee Cooper and then-South Carolina Electric & Gas, which later was acquired by Dominion. The state Public Service Commission over the years approved nine electric rate hikes for then-SCE&G customers for the now-abandoned project, made possible by a 2007 state law quietly approved by legislators.

The 170-member Legislature is expected to choose from among the sale and management proposals involving Santee Cooper. Gov. Henry McMaster, who has publicly pushed to sell the utility, is supporting NextEra’s purchase bid, according to media reports.

Following are the 18 Santee Cooper employees with the highest total annual compensation, including state health insurance and retirement contributions, and other benefits such as car allowances, according to utility records:

  • Mark Bonsall, president and CEO: $1,160,652;
  • Charles Duckworth, deputy CEO and chief of planning: $618,661;
  • Pamela Williams, senior vice president and CFO: $497,394;
  • John Baxley, senior vice president and general counsel: $428,833;
  • Rahul Dembla, vice president, planning and pricing: $361,597;
  • Michael Crosby, senior vice president, nuclear energy: $338,759;
  • Arnold Singleton, senior vice president, power delivery: $336,141;
  • Dominick Maddalone, senior vice president, technology services/chief information officer: $336,141
  • Suzanne Ritter: vice president and controller: $324,578;
  • James Poston, vice president, retail operations: $323,657;
  • Jane Hood, vice president, environmental/water system mgt: $312,337;
  • Kenneth Lott, vice president, human resources management: $300,707;
  • Stephen Pelcher, deputy general counsel, nuclear/regulatory compliance: $293,541;
  • Daniel Camp, vice president, real estate: $290,494;
  • Michael Brown, vice president, wholesale/industrial services: $287,722;
  • Thomas Curtis, vice president, generating stations: $282,858;
  • Charles Bennett, vice president, administration: $270,389;
  • Victoria Budreau, vice president, fuels strategy/supply: $265,342

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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