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A look at Littleton and Boxborough’s electric relationship

By Alexander Silva
Sep 5, 2017

Although Boxborough purchases approximately half of the Littleton Electric Light Department’s power, the town doesn’t have a seat on the Littleton Board of Light Commissioners.

The reason for a lack of official representation is a century-old state law, according to Littleton Electric Light Department General Manager Scott Edwards.

Massachusetts General Law Chapter 164 is the statute establishing municipal light plants, but it has no mechanism to give communities legal representation in the plants of neighboring communities they franchise might into, said Edwards.

“The way that’s set up is they’re established by a single town or city,” Edwards said of municipal light plants. “So then any other town or city that’s franchised, there’s no mechanism for them to officially serve on the Board of Commissioners because the Board of Commissioners are elected by the town that established the municipal light plant.”

An electric relationship

Boxborough became franchised into the Littleton Electric Light Department in the 1930s and the department now serves the entire town of Boxborough as well as Littleton.

The Littleton Electric Light Department services about 7,000 residential customers in total, with about 2,500 to 3,000 of the residential customers located in Boxborough, according to Edwards.

“It happened quite a bit back in that era with other municipal light plants because there’s quite a few (municipal plants) that do multiple towns,” Edwards said.

Littleton Board of Light Commissioners Chairman Thomas Rauker said he suspects the origin of Littleton and Boxborough’s electric relationship stemmed from Boxborough’s roots as a farming community.

“If you think back to the 1930s, a town like Boxborough was almost totally farming,” said Rauker. “If you think about it, for them to come up with an organization to put in the infrastructure to put together to be able to have a power system deliver to all those houses, the magnet would have been to go towards somebody who is doing it that’s already established.”

There are 41 other municipal electric departments in the state, according to Rauker.

Rauker couldn’t think of any other municipality in the state that has official representation from a franchised community because there’s no mechanism in the state statute to do it.

For franchised communities to legally have a seat on the board of commissioners for the municipal plant of their service provider, Massachusetts General Law Chapter 164 would have to be changed, according to Edwards.

“It would have to be some sort of legislative change to the Chapter 164,” Edwards said. “That law’s been around for over 100 years.”

For the ratepayers

Regardless of Boxborough not having an official seat on the Littleton Board of Light Commissioners, the Littleton Electric Light Department’s duty is to its ratepayers – no matter which town they live in, according to Edwards.

“We treat all our ratepayers the same, whatever town they’re in,” Edwards said.

“As the Board of Commissioners, we have a fiduciary responsibility to all the ratepayers,” added Rauker. “Not only to the town as elected officials, but to all the ratepayers.”

Rauker said that all of the Board of Light Commissioners’ meetings are posted and open to the public, including to Boxborough residents.

“We get right down to the individual ratepayer,” said Edwards. “If there’s a ratepayer that has an issue and they want to be heard at a board meeting, we put them on the agenda and they’re heard.”

Rauker noted that some of the department’s biggest customers are commercial businesses and companies and they don’t have a seat on the Board of Light Commissioners either.

All the programs offered by the Littleton Electric Light Department like the Green Rewards program and energy audits are available to every customer in both towns, noted Rauker.

Risk and reward

Because Boxborough doesn’t have an official seat on the Littleton Board of Light Commissioners, the town doesn’t have the same liability as Littleton does when it comes to paying off contracts or borrowing money for infrastructure improvements, according to Edwards.

“Since Littleton is the one that established the municipal light plant, Littleton has all the ownership of the distribution system, but we also have all of the liabilities,” Edwards said.

The stakes are often high for the Littleton Electric Light Department as well with multi-million contracts that can extend for decades, noted Rauker.

However, the results of Littleton and Boxborough’s electric relationship are the lowest electric rates and some of the best service in the state, said Rauker.

“I think the town of Boxborough gets the incredible service, they get the rates that are bar none the best rates in the state and also the highest service in the state,” Rauker said. “In turn, it’s not that Littleton doesn’t get something either. This partnership... gives us the economies of scale.”

With Boxborough purchasing 50 percent of Littleton’s power, the department is able to buy larger contracts that help keep the rates low for both towns, according to Rauker, who called the relationship a “win-win.”

“I don’t think that we would have the rates that we do without Boxborough,” added Rauker.