August 20, 2013 11:04:27 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
Mississippi Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said he hopes to extend a program that lowers gas and utility rates for people wishing to start small businesses.
The small business rate incentive program waives deposits and provides a 25 percent discount for small business owners during their first year of operation. Presley said he's reached out to Atmos Energy, Entergy Mississippi, Mississippi Power Company, CenterPoint Energy and Wilmut Gas & Oil Company to voluntarily extend services originally intended to expire at the end of this year until the end of 2014.
Presley said the next step will be taking the measure to the September PSC meeting, where commissioners have the option to approve the extension.
The program began in 2011 and has since helped 1,032 small businesses statewide save more than $700,000 in utility costs, Presley said Monday during a visit to Columbus. Presley said the energy saving helps new business owners get off the ground and achieve enough growth to hire more employees.
"The reason for that was to help encourage and give less hassle and less regulation and less fees and charges on people who were really wanting to start a small business but maybe don't have a lot of capital to get it going right in the beginning," Presley said. "That's where the company is putting skin in the game to reduce costs of small business owners...Small businesses create two of every three new jobs right now."
Presley said the program was a means of providing some incentives that larger industries already received.
"Industries a lot of the time have already have built-in incentives in the rates, but they also have all sorts of incentives available to them that are not available to the main street, mom-and-pop businesses," Presley said. "To me, it's important because small businesses don't pack up to go to Mexico and they don't pack up to go to China. A gas station in Grenada isn't going to relocate to Guadalajara. They're going to be right here in our communities, and they're hiring our neighbors."
William Senter, vice president of rates and regulatory affairs for Atmos Energy's Mississippi Division, said any new small business owner will be eligible to enroll. Also eligible will be owners looking either to relocate to a larger location or start another one.
"If there's a new meter, there's growth, and we want to encourage that. If you've got a pizza store one side of town and you (open another store) on the other side of town, the one on the other side of town with the new meter is going to get the discount," Senter said. "Those charges are our fixed monthly charge as well as our volumetric charge for usage. The one charge excluded is the actual cost of the gas. The law requires we charge that 100 percent, so we don't discount that, but we discount our cost."
Atmos, which has customers in 40 Mississippi counties, has a phone line (601-420-5063) set up that people can call for more information about eligibility. Helping small business owners is not merely an act of altruism, Senter said.
"Our success is tied to the success of those counties. Our success is tied to the success of those communities in those counties. In many of these smaller communities, it is the smaller business that is the lifeblood of those communities," he said. "We're excited to be cooperating with the commission on this program because if we can support our small business customers, we're supporting our communities, and ultimately we're supporting ourselves."
Presley said of the 1,032 business that have benefited from the program, Atmos has played a part in helping 770 of them.
"Atmos leads the way in the number of customers that have been signed up, but it's really based on the fact that they have not taken it for granted. They've gone out and said, 'OK, we're not going to hunt you down. We're just going to automatically enroll you.' I think there have been some customers who have been pleasantly surprised that they got a deposit waive," Presley said. "Some of the (deposits) can easily be $1,000. That $1,000 is real money to real folks that they're not having to shell out of their pockets. They can put that into buying equipment, expanding the business, remodeling and hiring an employee."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.