Utility regulators reject $5 billion sale of Cleco, but battle may not be over yet _lowres

Advocate photo by MARK BALLARD -- Louisiana Public Service Commissioners Scott Angelle, left, and Eric Skrmetta, right, discuss a $4.9 billion bid by Australian and Canadian investors to buy Pineville-based utility Cleco. The Feb. 24 vote went against Cleco and the investors, who are seeking a rehearing.

Many of Cleco’s customers will receive a free month of electricity in July, possibily August too, as the utility makes good on a promise made earlier this year in return for permission to sell itself to a group of private investors, the company announced Monday.

Beginning Friday, Cleco will apply the credit — about $475 for most — to the July bills of its approximately 287,000 customers in parts of Acadiana, the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain and much of central Louisiana.

If a customer’s bill for July is less than the credit amount, a credit balance will roll over to the August bill, according to a Cleco press release. The balance will continue to roll over each month until the credit is fully exhausted.

In June, Cleco’s residential customers paid $111.91 for a 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, according to filings with the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which oversees the rates of privately owned utility companies in the state. The typical residential consumer uses about 1,300 Kwh of electricity each month.

“This credit is just one way we are showing our commitment to our customers and ensuring they receive a direct benefit from our transaction,” Darren Olagues, CEO and president of Cleco, said in the press release.

The PSC ordered the credit as part of a set of commitments the new owners agreed upon to acquire the company.

Cleco was purchased in April by an investor group led by Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets, British Columbia Investment Management Corp., and John Hancock Financial. To gain approval for the sale, Cleco’s new owners agreed to 77 commitments to customers and employees.

The approval to sell all of Cleco’s stock to the Macquarie investors followed a raucous debate that included the PSC reversing its initial decision that leaned against the sale after the investors sweetened their offer.

One of the key negotiators of the concessions and a supporter of the deal was PSC Commissioner Eric Skrmetta, a Metairie Republican whose suburban New Orleans district includes many Cleco customers.

“I’m ecstatic that this credit is landing on people’s utility bills especially at a time of the year when electricity consumption usually goes up,” Skrmetta said in an interview Monday. “This should make a difference not only to the individuals who are receiving this break to the state’s economy where people will have more money to spend on their regular activities.”

The Macquarie buyers also agreed to contribute $7 million to Louisiana’s economic development efforts to be administered by state economic development agency in Cleco’s service territory. And the new company committed to guaranteeing for a decade the head count, salaries and benefits for Cleco’s 1,205 employees as well as health benefits for retirees.

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