COLUMBIA - As lawmakers debate if South Carolina's publicly owned utility should continue to exist, the board that runs the company voted Tuesday to hire a new leader and pay him double the salary of its last permanent director.
Mark Bonsall started as Santee Cooper's CEO immediately after the board's unanimous vote. He was given an 18-month contract at $1.1 million a year with the chance to earn $250,000 extra if he meets certain performance targets that were not publicly discussed at Tuesday's meeting.
Bonsall's 41-year utility career before Tuesday was spent in Arizona with Salt River Project, where he rose to CEO for seven years before retiring in May 2018.
Bonsall takes over a utility whose future is uncertain. The last permanent Santee Cooper CEO, Lonnie Carter, stepped down after leading the utility into about $4 billion in additional debt after it bought a minority stake in two nuclear reactors that were never built at the V.C. Summer site north of Columbia. Carter was paid about $540,000 a year.
Legislators worried about how that debt may affect not just the 2 million customers who get power from Santee Cooper or through South Carolina's electric cooperatives who buy it from the utility. They also are worried that debt could hit every state resident and voted in this year's session to gather information and possible bids for a private utility to buy the state-owned agency or at least manage it.
Supporters of local control for Santee Cooper hope over the next several months to convince lawmakers and Gov. Henry McMaster - who is also pushing hard to sell the utility - that it can keep rates low without being taken over by a company whose goal is to turn a profit.
Acting Santee Cooper Board Chairman Dan Ray said the utility used consultants to negotiate with Bonsall and his $1.1 million salary is about in the middle of what directors of similar-sized utilities make.
Bonsall is also the first leader hired outside Santee Cooper in four decades, so the utility had to pay a competitive salary, Ray said.
"The board felt it was important to bring in someone who was seasoned," Ray said at Tuesday's meeting, livestreamed from Santee Cooper's headquarters near Moncks Corner.
The board also hired Charlie Duckworth, who worked with Bonsall at Salt River Project, to be Santee Cooper's new deputy CEO at Bonsall's recommendation. Duckworth will be paid $560,000 with a chance to make $165,000 more in performance bonuses.
After he was hired, Bonsall told the board he was well aware of Santee Cooper's long history as a public utility formed in the Great Depression to bring power to some of South Carolina's poorest, remote communities and its beloved status to many workers and residents.
"I respect it. I appreciate its history of excellence," Bonsall said of his new employer. "Good people."
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP .
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