Originally created 12/11/97

SCANA chief says competition could force utility to move



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The head of South Carolina's largest utility holding company says it could move hundreds of jobs elsewhere if the state approves electric deregulation.

If SCANA Corp. faces losing part of its customer base to competition, it might relocate to a higher-growth area like Atlanta or Charlotte, N.C., President Bill Timmerman said.

"I'll ask the question and our shareholders will ask the question," Timmerman said. "I don't want to leave this community, but that's one of the questions that's going to be asked."

The Legislature took no action on deregulation proposals last year, but they remain active for the coming year.

SCANA serves about 500,000 customers through South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. The holding company employs 1,880 people in Richland and Lexington counties, including 724 at its downtown Columbia offices.

Timmerman would not discuss possible layoffs, but said the company would have to "stretch resources and stretch people" in a competitive marketplace. He said SCANA is not looking to merge with another utility.

The legislator who introduced last year's deregulation proposal denounced Timmerman's comments.

"The long litany of scare tactics being used makes it pretty well standard," said state Rep. Doug Smith, R-Spartanburg.

He said that "has brought his lobbyists in talking about how negative restructuring would be on retired stockholders. I'm not worried about stockholders, I'm worried about residential rate payers in South Carolina."

A spokesman for Gov. David Beasley did nto have any immediate comment.

Restructuring the state's electric industry would allow residential and industrial customers to choose their own electric provider. The idea is to drive down prices.

Smith and Bill Mullen, a candidate for state comptroller general, released a study Tuesday saying taxpayers would save between $40 million and $56 million by allowing school systems and state agencies to choose their electric provider.

"This is a great step toward leaner, more efficient government," Smith said.

Timmerman said South Carolinians already enjoy some of the lowest electric prices in the nation so there should be no rush to scrap the system.

"We have the opportunity to watch what happens in other states," he said. "You can buy all the studies you want, but let's see what happens in the real world."

The state Public Service Commission, which regulates electric companies and other utilities, is scheduled to present House Speaker David Wilkins with a restructuring proposal by Jan. 31.