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A Times Editorial

Public needs to see utilities' top salaries

Nancy Argenziano, the brash former state senator, has it right: There's no legitimate reason for the Public Service Commission to allow Florida utilities to hide from the public how much they pay their top employees.

That's the issue today in Tallahassee as Argenziano and her fellow PSC members decide whether Progress Energy Florida and Florida Power & Light can hide their compensation schedules from the public even as they seek extraordinary hikes to their base rates. There is only one answer: No.

The companies have argued that they already disclose the information to the PSC and its staff, and that making the information public would put them at a competitive disadvantage and violate the privacy of employees. But this isn't a Main Street business. It's a regulated industry that has a monopoly and a guaranteed rate of return. It must abide by the rules — particularly when it is seeking base rate hikes of as much as 31 percent.

Ratepayers have a right to know if outsized salaries and benefits for top executives are padding their monthly electricity bills.

Plus, the request for confidentiality doesn't comport with Florida's strong public records laws or the public interest. The public records exemption for "proprietary confidential business information" explicitly excludes compensation information, which means it is subject to disclosure.

Argenziano, in a letter earlier this month to PSC chairman Matthew Carter, demanded the companies make public the total compensation for each employee earning more than $165,000. She said she wants to ensure that regulated utilities are not engaging in the "corporate culture reflected in the compensation riot among AIG, Morgan Stanley" and other Wall Street investment firms. Argenziano called the PSC "the only policeman on the block" because utilities' boards of directors provide "no scrutiny" of pay levels.

The Office of Public Counsel, a legislative agency charged with looking out for utility customers, has consistently challenged compensation as too generous and unfairly inflating utility rates.

Currently, Progress Energy's 30 percent rate hike request includes more than $47 million in excessive compensation, according to filings by the public counsel. The utility is "totally ignoring" the state of the economy and plans on "business as usual pay increases" and "increases in incentive compensation" when current incentive pay is unjustified, Helmuth Schultz, a regulatory analyst hired by the public counsel, wrote in testimony filed with the PSC.

Last year, Bill Johnson, president, chairman and chief executive at the Raleigh, N.C.-based parent company of Progress Energy Florida, received more than $6 million in total compensation. Such a payday comes as Progress Energy wants customers in Tampa Bay to pay nearly one-third more plus finance a Levy County nuclear power plant that won't be ready until at least 2018. Whether that's fair can only be ascertained if the public has access to all the information.

Public needs to see utilities' top salaries 08/17/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 17, 2009 6:51pm]
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