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Florida regulators tell utilities to turn over salary data

TALLAHASSEE — State regulators on Tuesday unanimously voted to force Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light to disclose how much they pay their top executives.

The decision by the Public Service Commission means that Progress Energy must tell regulators, in a confidential document, how much it pays 132 employees who make at least $165,000 annually.

FPL must reveal the salaries of 461 employees who make that much or more.

Under the order, the names of the employees would be kept secret but their job titles and salaries would be disclosed to the commission. Only the individual salary figures would be disclosed to the public.

But the electric companies argued that disclosing the pay packages — even confidentially — would violate employee privacy, place the companies at a competitive disadvantage if competitors were to obtain the data, and do nothing to help the PSC decide if the companies are entitled to rate increases.

"We are disappointed with the decision by the Public Service Commission," said Mark Bubriski, a spokesman for Juno Beach-based FPL, in a statement. "This will ultimately result in increased rates for FPL customers. In addition, this is clearly a violation of the employees' privacy and could create safety and security issues. This decision serves no compelling interest of the commission and we will appeal it."

"We are disappointed, and we believe today's decision will end up costing customers more in the end," said Tim Leljedal, a spokesman for Progress Energy Florida. He said the company will wait to see the final order before decision whether to appeal it.

FPL will go before the commission next week asking to raise its electric rates $1.3 billion annually. Progress Energy seeks a $500 million annual increase starting next year and goes before the commission Sept. 21.

The ruling came after nearly five hours of discussion in which attorneys for the electric companies alleged that revealing the data not only violated employees' constitutional right to privacy but would "allow competitors to raid key employees."

That would force the companies to spend money to retain employees and train new ones.

"What we're talking about is not whether the agency needs this information to make a decision but whether we need to make this information public," FPL lawyer Barry Richard told the commission. "That's not something that's an appropriate subject for the commission to be concerning itself with."

Attorneys for the PSC argued that state law does not exempt salary data from the public records law and that any information that affects a utility's rates or cost of service is essential to the commission's ability to determine if the electric companies are fairly charging customers.

PSC Commissioner Nancy Argenziano argued that the information is crucial to the PSC's review of the rate requests.

"The public's right to know trumps the individual's right to keep secret their essentially publicly funded salary," Argenziano said. "We are the only policeman on the block and without that information, it would render us useless."

Argenziano, who did not attend the meeting but participated via telephone, made the initial request that companies make public the compensation packages of employees earning more than $165,000. She said she arrived at the number because it was four times the average income of residents in her home county of Citrus.

Before the hearing, FPL and Progress Energy provided the PSC with salary averages for certain jobs titles for employees at the companies but didn't disclose the names linked to those jobs. Instead, FPL offered to have PSC staff members go to a Tallahassee law office to read a "key" that would allow the staff to figure out which employees correlate to each job title and salary.

Progress didn't provide the so-called key and provided only a list of top salaries.

PSC Commissioner Nathan Skop berated the companies for gamesmanship and chastised them for failing to "respect the regulatory process" by protesting a straightforward request for the salary data.

He called the hearing over the salary issue "a drain on our resources" and said the companies had "selectively responded, dictated what they will provide and how they will provide it, and to me that is unacceptable."

Neither company had been required to provide the information to commissioners in the past.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

Florida regulators tell utilities to turn over salary data 08/18/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 21, 2009 1:54pm]
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