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  • Sen. Mia McLeod

Let’s oppose Palmetto Utilities’ effort to raise rates amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Because of the VC Summer fiasco and other utility-related issues, rate hikes have become a recurring theme in South Carolina. As lawmakers we are accountable to the people we represent, and we should do everything we can to ensure that the process by which utility rates are regulated is fair, open and transparent.

In 2016 I was sworn in to represent Senate District 22, and I promised to advocate for the people in my district and across South Carolina (many of whom were already trying their best to make ends meet).

But now a global pandemic is wreaking havoc on our state with record exposures, deaths and unemployment.

Those who were already working multiple jobs and living paycheck to paycheck — while also pinching pennies to pay their rent and other expenses — are having an even harder time now. Meanwhile, many of our seniors and most vulnerable adults continue to live on fixed incomes. The last thing these South Carolinians need right now is yet another rate increase.

Just 3 years ago Palmetto Utilities, which services Richland and Kershaw counties, petitioned the Public Service Commission for a significant rate increase — and the utility received it. Such rate hikes are direct hits to ratepayers, and too often they’re actually “multiple hits” because they force us to pay higher amounts to multiple utilities.

At least 19,000 South Carolinians have already been exposed to COVID-19 and more than 600 people have died because of it. As our numbers continue to surge, Richland and Kershaw counties have been among the hardest hit; in fact, Richland County ranks among South Carolina’s highest counties in COVID-19 exposures, deaths and unemployment.

But none of this has deterred Palmetto Utilities, which is now pursuing yet another revenue boost of approximately $5.9 million by imposing a nearly 30% increase on every household.

It seems tone-deaf, greedy and self-serving for a utility to attempt to squeeze ratepayers for more money under our current catastrophic conditions — and Palmetto Utilities could acknowledge that by voluntarily withdrawing its request or agreeing to a six-month extension.

It has chosen not to do either. And why would it?

Did you know that South Carolina law not only favors public utilities, it allows commission-regulated utilities to basically “self-regulate”? For example, if the commission rules against a utility’s proposed increase, the utility can appeal to the state Supreme Court and temporarily impose the requested increase on ratepayers anyway. And if the state Supreme Court later rules in the utility’s favor, that temporary increase can easily become permanent.

I stand firmly against these rate hikes.

That’s why I have asked the Public Service Commission to hold virtual public night hearings during this pandemic — and to give my constituents and community members an opportunity to ask questions and share their concerns regarding the potential impact of these proposed rate increases.

That’s precisely what we did during the commission’s March virtual meeting, and Palmetto Utilities ratepayers will have an opportunity to do so again during the commission’s Monday June 22 virtual meeting, which begins at 6 p.m.

When a corporation that already has a monopoly on sewer services continues to vigorously pursues rate increase after rate increase with little regard for the people it purports to serve, my constituents and community members deserve transparency, accountability and answers. The ratepayers of South Carolina have been forced to pay into failed utility systems for far too long.

As lawmakers we should focus on repairing the damage caused by decades of leadership and oversight failures — and amending the laws to provide more protections for ratepayers would be a great place to start.

State Sen. Mia McLeod represents District 22, which includes portions of Richland and Kershaw counties.

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