Utility regulators seek funding for Kemper staffing, travel

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Kendra Ablaza, Mississippi Today

Mississippi Public Service Commission officials on Tuesday speak to the Mississippi House of Representatives Appropriations Committee about budget requests.

When it comes to evaluating Mississippi Power Co.’s Kemper County energy facility, state utility regulators say they need funding help for outside experts, travel for inspections and staff pay raises.

During back-to-back House of Representatives Appropriations Committee meetings on Tuesday, Public Service Commission and Public Utilities Staff officials presented their budget needs to lawmakers.

According to Mississippi Legislative Budget Office data, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee proposed in December lowering the commission’s budget from $5.2 million to $4.9 million, a reduction of about 4.8 percent.

In the same report, the budget committee proposed that the Public Utilities staff’s $2.1 million fiscal year 2017 budget drop to about $2 million, a difference of about 4 percent.

Shawn Shurden, general counsel of the Public Service Commission, told the committee that funding is needed to contract with experts to help the commission and its staff members determine whether cost overages for the Kemper plant, currently forecast to fully operate by Jan. 31, would fall on the utility company or its ratepayers.

Similarly, officials from the state’s public utilities staff, a separate agency that specializes in investment and advisory services, said they would also need funding for contractual services related to the Kemper plant.

The plant, which is running on natural gas, was supposed to go into full operation running on syngas made of lignite coal by May 2014. Mississippi Power Co. has said the facility should be fully operational on lignite coal by Jan. 31.

The cost of the plant, which was once projected around $2.9 billion, is now expected to reach more than $7 billion.

Virden Jones, executive director of the public-utilities staff, said both the utilities staff and public service commission hire their own independent experts.

“(The Public Service Commission’s) staff is primarily a legal staff,” Jones said. “(The Public Utilities) staff is primarily accountants, engineers (and) economists.”

Katherine Collier, executive director of the public service commission, also said the commission needs to fill six vacancies and that its pipeline safety division would need more travel funding to monitor its pipeline systems.

“We don’t have the money to inspect as much as we’d like,” Collier told the committee.