GONZALES — Slated for what should have been an automatic vote Thursday night, a proposed agreement to allow New Roads electrical cooperative PC Electric to begin competing in Ascension Parish was shelved, pending a state probe into the pay, benefits and perks of top Louisiana co-op officials.
The Louisiana Public Service Commission ordered the investigation unanimously Wednesday of all Louisiana co-ops after revelations that some part-time directors were making upward of $30,000 to $50,000 per year in per diem and in benefits like health and life insurance.
Louisiana has 10 rural electrical cooperatives that provide power to 900,000 customers across the state and operate as member-owned nonprofits. The co-ops have a fiduciary duty to their members, who are the rate-paying customers.
Ascension Council Chairman Bill Dawson said in an interview before the council meeting that several council members began asking him if they shouldn't wait to see what the state regulator finds first before considering the proposal.
"I don’t think it would be wise to move on this at this time when the PSC is doing an investigation," said Dawson, who as chairman manages the council agenda and meetings.
Later, the 11-member council agreed to pull PC Electric’s nonexclusive franchise agreement from the consent agenda and, in a 10-0 vote with little discussion, send it back to committee. Councilman Todd Lambert was absent.
No representatives of PC Electric were present for the council meeting. Myron Lambert, PC Electric's general manager, didn't return a message and email for comment earlier Thursday.
The pay revelations and subsequent inquiry come as co-ops near Baton Rouge have been trying to enter into the lucrative River Parishes market and get a piece of the industrial power business long dominated by Entergy, a for-profit, investor-owned utility.
In addition to PC Electric’s interest in Ascension, PC Electric, Dixie Electric Membership Corp. and other area co-ops have also been courting St. James Parish for months.
In Ascension, a PC Electric official told a Parish Council committee earlier this month her co-op wants to take advantage of a 2013 decision by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator that allows co-ops to use Entergy's transmission grid to expand.
"That gives us the ability to grow and go into other areas, and with the advent of electric cars and efficient appliances, we want industrial load. We want to compete for industrial load," said Desiree Lemoine, who handles external affairs for PC Electric.
The PSC vote has already had other spillover effects. Commissioner Foster Campbell, D-Bossier Parish, railed Wednesday over the pay of the directors and the top executive of Claiborne Electric Cooperative in North Louisiana and other co-ops.
Campbell had pointed out Claiborne CEO Mark Brown has a salary of about $198,200 and a co-op board member made close to $50,000 in pay and benefits to lead a utility that serves 26,000 customers in one of Louisiana poorest regions.
Just hours after the PSC meeting, Claiborne’s board of directors agreed to give up their health insurance benefits that cost a combined $190,000 per year, co-op officials said Thursday.
In a statement, co-op officials said they had been considering the change already but agreed to eliminate the benefit “in an effort to prevent anyone from being able to use it as a means of sowing division into the co-op.”
Previously known as Pointe Coupee Electric Membership Corporation, PC Electric serves about 8,000 customers and has already has access to its namesake parish as well as Iberville and West Baton Rouge parishes.
At the time of a Sept. 11 Ascension committee meeting where Lemoine spoke, council members, including Dawson, uniformly welcomed the additional competition from PC Electric. Ascension is now served only by Entergy and DEMCO, another co-op based in Central.
Nonprofit financial documents that PC Electric filed with the IRS in 2016 show its board members made between $6,447 and $30,382 that year in reportable compensation, including per diem.
Some directors also received additional nonreportable compensation totaling another $5,500 to $5,775 each. The IRS forms don't break out what that compensation constituted.