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Letter: Municipal utility comes at a cost

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Oct. 20 edition of the Chronicle raised - yet again - the old municipal electric utility chestnut. You know, eliminate the evil investor-owned electric company and institute in its place a wonderful municipal electric utility and all will be well with electric bills here in Cambridge. Here's a few thoughts that might be useful in the debate:

     1. Has anyone actually investigated average rates for residential and commercial services in the several municipal light departments in Massachusetts to see how they stack up against those paid here in Cambridge? If anyone cares to do that, they may find some surprises.

     2. NSTAR pays how many dollars per year in real and personal property taxes to the city of Cambridge?

     3. Who will make up the lost tax revenue, as the municipal utility will pay none?

     4. NSTAR pays private contractors to dig the streets, trim the trees, install the overhead and underground power lines, and so forth. Ultimately, of course, we the consumers pay for those services as part of our electric bill.

     5. In most towns in Massachusetts served by a municipal electric utility, the town DPW digs the road and installs the overhead and underground power lines and so forth, while the town forester trims the trees. Typically, those services are provided at no cost to the municipal light department because it is another town department. Ultimately, of course, we the consumers will pay for those services as part of our local tax bills. When was the last time any of us saw any government agency provide a service at less cost than a private enterprise? Remember the Golden Fleece Awards that used to be given out periodically by a U.S. senator?

     6. If a Cambridge resident has a complaint about the cost or quality of service rendered by NSTAR, there is a state agency (the Department of Telecommunications and Energy) charged with the responsibility to investigate and resolve that complaint as best as may be. That state agency does not regulate municipal light departments.

     7. Thus, if a Cambridge resident has a complaint about the cost or quality of service rendered by a Cambridge municipal light department, he or she must go to the city government seeking redress of that complaint. Kind of like asking the leopard to change its spots, don't you think? How many of us Cantabrigians have had much success seeking redress of a complaint from existing city agencies?

     The idea that a municipal electric utility is either a guarantee of lower cost or better service is a fallacy. City funds could be much better invested in improving the quality and availability of existing city services, most of which could certainly use improvement.

     Rogers Street