daily news tribune

Politicians differ over utility plan

By Galen Moore / Daily News Tribune
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

BOSTON -- Your electric bills could start coming from city hall under a bill filed with the Legislature that would make it easier for municipalities to take over local power grids from utility companies like NStar and Massachusetts Electric.

A dozen or more local officials and residents, mostly representing a handful of affluent western suburbs, spoke before the Telecommunications and Energy Committee yesterday in a public hearing on the bill.

"Trying to deal with NStar...makes it virtually impossible," Newton Alderman Ken Parker said of the current process, set up in 1997. Parker and other backers of the bill say municipalities can save ratepayers 24 percent on their electric bills by taking over electricity distribution from shareholder-owned companies.

Newton Mayor David Cohen backs the bill, and said so in a letter to the Telecommunications Committee. In July, sagging wires in Newton Centre caught on a passing truck, bringing several poles crashing to the ground. In yesterday's hearing, bill proponents from Newton blamed the accident on faulty safety practices by NStar.

But Rep. Tom Stanley, D-Waltham, and Mayor Jeannette McCarthy, in telephone interviews after the hearing, both questioned whether a municipal lighting authority, or "muni," would be appropriate for Waltham. NStar is "very responsive" to the city's needs, McCarthy said, and the power demands of Waltham's commercial base may be too much for a muni to handle.

Still, the possibility of switching to a muni would be a valuable bargaining chip for every city and town, Stanley said. "One of the most important functions of this bill would be to force NStar to come to the table, and to provide more prompt attention to service calls," said Stanley, who also represents Lexington.

But so far, setting up a muni has proven impractical for municipalities that have tried to do so. Negotiating the purchase of wires and equipment is costly, and existing utility companies may back out at any time.

The bill, House 3294, would prevent power companies from backing out.

"Our laws already enable cities and towns to form munis,...but no city has formed a muni in Massachusetts since 1926," said Patrick Mehr, a Lexington resident who has studied the issue for his town.

Power companies cite the same 1926 date. "It's been nearly a hundred years since a city or town did this," NStar spokesman Mike Durand said in a phone call after the meeting. "It's an idea whose time has long since passed."

Gary Sullivan, president of the Utility Workers Local 369, spoke against the bill, saying it would make it too easy for cities and town to get in over their heads.

"If you make it too easy to do, then you rush into it," Sullivan said. He said some munis do not adequately maintain equipment, creating problems for neighboring towns in distribution networks that often cross town lines.

However, officials from Concord, one of 41 municipalities statewide that have munis, say the town is satisfied, and is doing better than neighbor Lexington, which uses NStar.

Lexington officials agree.

"We have been the victims of a utility service that has not served us well," said Jay Kaufman, D-Lexington, the bill's sponsor. "They want the right to be at the table so they can actually have a meaningful conversation with their investor-owned utilities."

Governor's Councilor Marilyn Petitto-Devaney, who represents 34 municipalities, including Marlborough, Northborough, Westborough and Southborough, told the committee her constituent cities and towns stand to benefit from the opportunity to leave their utility companies.

"I ask you to give the opportunity to these communities," Devaney said, "to give some relief to these people."

Galen Moore is a Daily News Tribune staff writer. He can be reached at 781-398-8004, or gmoore@cnc.com.