Politics & Government

Knives are out for Midlands utility board that gave itself high pay

Barry Hutto, left, and Jeff Reeves, right, resigned from the Tri-County Electric Cooperative board last Thursday at the co-op's annual meeting. Hutto and Reeves said they were frustrated that some members of the board had fought a plan to rein in board pay.
Barry Hutto, left, and Jeff Reeves, right, resigned from the Tri-County Electric Cooperative board last Thursday at the co-op's annual meeting. Hutto and Reeves said they were frustrated that some members of the board had fought a plan to rein in board pay. awilks@thestate.com

The directors of a Midlands electric co-op that gave themselves high pay and benefits have been condemned by their statewide association and hundreds of their customers.

On Wednesday,the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina called on the entire board of Tri-County Electric Cooperative to resign. Meanwhile, Tri-County’s customers have gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition that could be used to oust the six remaining board members.

The developments come two weeks after The State reported Tri-County’s part-time board members had given themselves lifetime health insurance policies and high per-diem pay to attend meetings. Days after that, one Tri-County customer filed a lawsuit to claw back some of that pay.

Tri-County’s board members, who oversee one of the smallest co-ops in South Carolina, were paid an average of $52,000 a year in 2016. That’s nearly double the statewide average pay for a co-op board members, which are part-time jobs, and more than triple the national average.

In part, that pay was so high because the board’s members met excessively — 50 meetings last year, four times more than their required monthly meetings ­— and pocketed the $450-a-meeting allowance each time. Many of those meetings lasted just 15 to 30 minutes, and could have been scheduled on the same day as their monthly meetings to save costs, Tri-County Chief Executive Chad Lowder has said.

Earlier this year, the board provisionally adopted policies reining in their pay. But some board members then actively worked to defeat those proposals, which were voted down by a razor-slim margin at the co-op’s annual customer meeting last month.

The Electric Cooperatives’ resolution Wednesday noted Tri-County, which has 13,600 customers in parts of Calhoun, Orangeburg, Richland, Lexington, Kershaw and Sumter counties, “has been the subject of serious controversy concerning” that annual meeting and the misinformation spread to defeat the pay changes.

“We all felt that it was not the way we do business, the way the other co-ops do business, and it was just not right,” said Douglas Reeves, chairman of the board of the Electric Cooperatives, an association made up of the state's 20 co-ops. “We were all hurt by the way this turned out, and we didn’t want everybody to think that the other 19 co-ops operated that way.”

A handful of Tri-County customers are circulating petitions to force a special meeting of the co-op’s 13,600 customers. At that meeting, the board members could be voted out of office.

One of those customers is Joe Henry Smith, an 80-year-old Elloree resident who said he is livid that Tri-County customers pay some of the state's highest electric rates while the co-op’s part-time board members draw "full-time salaries."

“The board is responsible for some of this because they are spending money like it’s coming out of a tap,” Smith said. “This is a part-time job, and they’re getting full-time salaries. It’s time this runaway train is stopped.”

So far, angry customers have turned in some 200 signatures calling for a special meeting, and at least 10 more petition sheets still are circulating, co-op CEO Lowder said. Customers need 1,360 signatures ­— 10 percent of the utility’s customers — to force the meeting.

The co-op’s customers can sign the petition at three Tri-County offices in Santee, St. Matthews and Eastover.

“Our job at the co-op is to ensure our members can exercise their rights,” Lowder said.

The board’s chairman, Eastover farmer Heath Hill, has declined to comment on the controversy, referring all questions to Lowder. Two former board members who had pushed for pay cuts for directors, Barry Hutto and Jeff Reeves, resigned at the May 17 annual meeting in protest.

See how South Carolina compares to other states regarding the cost of residential electric bills.

Reach Wilks at 803-771-8362. Follow him on Twitter at @AveryGWilks.
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