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Proponents of town-run utilities to present proposal

By Laura Crimaldi Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Advocates for a proposal to make it easier for cities and towns to operate their own utilities plan to cite the slow pace of service during last year’s crippling ice storm as one reason to change a century-old law.

The proposal, which goes before a Legislative committee this morning, would make it easier for municipalities to take control of utility service from large providers, like Nstar and National Grid.

“It would mean lower rates therefore economic development for Massachusetts,” said Patrick Mehr, chairman of the Lexington Electric Utility Committee. “It would mean more jobs and it would mean better service.”

There are 41 municipally-operated utilities statewide. Mehr said the “munis” provide better service and lower rates.

He said that locally operated utilities in Groton, Templeton, Littleton, Princeton and Ashburnham did a better job restoring service during the December 2008 central Massachusetts ice storm.

Unitil, the major service provider for that region, was widely criticized after it took weeks to restore power for some customers.

“We are dealing with a totally obsolete law and it has to be updated. If it is not, there will never be another muni in Massachusetts.”

A Nstar spokeswoman said that the Green Communities Act has already created a committee charged with examining the feasibility of setting up more municipal utilities.

“Right now cities and towns already have the ability to create munis on their own, but none have opted to do so since the 1920s,” Nstar spokeswoman Caroline Allen said in an e-mail.

She provided a rate comparison sheet showing August electric bill costs ranging from $69.52 to $96.74 per household for municipal utlities in Braintree, Belmont, Concord, Hudson, Hull and Taunton.

The August bills from major providers Western Mass Electric, Unitil, National Grid and Nstar ranged from $77.72 to $96.95.

The proposal goes before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy for a public hearing at 10 a.m. at the State House.