05/15/2012 12:46 EDT | Updated 07/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia premier says Emera party was insensitive in face of rate hikes

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's premier says it was insensitive for executives at Halifax-based utility Emera to throw themselves a party one day after the private company proposed to hike energy rates.

Emera, the parent company of Nova Scotia Power, hosted the event last Wednesday at a waterfront restaurant for its executives and board of directors.

Nova Scotia Power announced last Tuesday that it was applying to increase rates by three per cent annually in 2014 and 2015.

Premier Darrell Dexter said Emera showed "very poor judgment" in throwing the bash at a time when many Nova Scotians are struggling to make ends meet.

"It shows a lack of sensitivity with respect to the way people are feeling," he said at the provincial legislature.

"There's no question that anything that hits people's pocketbooks like this, it causes a flare of very justified concern."

Dexter added that Emera has a "fundamental difficulty" if it doesn't understand that Nova Scotians may be upset about the rate increase.

Emera spokeswoman Sasha Irving did not return calls seeking comment.

It's the second time in as many weeks that Emera and Nova Scotia Power have faced scathing criticism in the legislature for their money management.

Last week, documents posted on Emera's website revealed big raises for some of its top executives in 2011, including CEO Chris Huskilson, who made over $122,000 more in base salary than he did the year before.

The documents showed Huskilson earned $747,115 in salary last year. But once share options and pension contributions were added, his total compensation climbed to $2.99 million, slightly up from $2.96 million in 2010.

Rob Bennett, CEO of Nova Scotia Power, saw his total compensation package rise to $1.15 million in 2011, up from $934,212 the previous year.

Liberal Opposition Leader Stephen McNeil called for a review of the compensation packages given to executives, saying rolling back their wages would be a show of good faith.

He said it's bad enough that Nova Scotians are already burdened with some of the highest rates in the country.

"Then we find out the top executive is making over a million dollars and they throw a party the next day," he said.

"They're completely out of touch with the reality that Nova Scotians are facing."

But McNeil also said the responsibility to protect customers ultimately lies with Dexter. He said the premier should appear before the Utility and Review Board to oppose the proposed rate increases.

Hearings before the board are scheduled for September.

Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said Dexter should also instruct the board to review the "bloated" salaries of executives.

"Particularly because those that have been entrusted with that responsibility — the board of directors of Nova Scotia Power — have not done their job," he said.

Baillie later said the government has the authority to direct the board to reject executives' salaries, but the Premier's Office said legislation would be required to do so.

Dexter has said the board is free to review the salaries as part of any rate application by Nova Scotia Power.