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Which comes first? The study or the company?

By Bethan L. Jones/ Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006

Which comes first: the support for a municipal light company or the studies supporting it?

    At last year’s Town Meeting, Lexington voted to put forward a home rule petition, allowing the town to go forward in establishing a municipal energy entity for the town. For this year’s Town Meeting, $150,000 is requested for a feasibility study through article 38 on the warrant.

    Lexington’s home rule petition, however, is not fairing so well on Beacon Hill. The petition has been sent to the Energy Committee where concerns have been raised on the determination of a fair market price for the equipment Lexington would have to purchase from current provider NSTAR; a systematic plan of action if the municipal company fails; what the economic cost to Lexington will be; and overall due diligence as a municipal power entity has not been created in more than 80 years.

    State. Rep. Jay Kaufman, D-Lexington, said the proposal of municipalizing power "did not immediately fall on fertile soil."

    The catch for Lexington remains. Does the town invest money and political clout into a proposal on which many state leaders have significant reservations, in part because of the need of further financial and political support for the plan?

    As Selectman Richard Pagett put it, it is very much a "chicken and the egg" kind of conundrum.

    Kaufman did say the home rule petition received a favorable initial review before going into the Energy Committee for study.

    "Although it’s a victory ... [it is] a small victory and short-lived," said Kaufman, adding Lexington knew the petition would be a "real hard sell" going in.

    Kaufman said he is continuing talks with committee members but has little hope of success in the near future, telling town leaders to be patient until the fall session.

Lexington also put forward a bill, House 3294, which if passed would allow any municipality to set up its own power system. The bill did not get favorable reviews and is also under study in committee. Kaufman said approximately 115 other communities have rallied behind the home rule petition, viewing it as a "trial balloon" for the process.

    Neighboring towns such as Belmont and Concord have municipal energy companies providing citizens with power. According to information from the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Energy Company, an action agency for consumer-owned, municipal utilities in the state, NSTAR customers now pay up to 70 percent more per kilowatt hour than municipal power agencies.

    "There are a lot of people who want [Lexington] to take the lead on this," said Kaufman.

    Kaufman said he is willing and able to push the home rule petition into greener pastures but wanted the selectmen and town officials to understand the process and cost.

    "I could do it ... but there are opportunity costs for all investments," he said, adding the town should create a bargaining committee to help illustrate how committed Lexington is to the proposal.

    Selectmen Chairman Jeanne Krieger said Town Meeting has given votes two years in a row with support for the municipal energy company and the town should go and sit down with the Department of Telecommunications and Energy and other groups to discuss the issue.

    Kaufman said the home rule petition would be stronger if Lexington has some sure economics. The Electric Utility Ad Hoc Committee have presented some rough estimates of the economics of the proposal but need more money and time to put together any real estimates, leading the committee to the request of article 38 for this year’s Town Meeting.

    In light of the recent developments on Beacon Hill, committee member Patrick Mehr said the committee needs to come together to determine what the best course of action will be. Mehr also said Lexington is caught in a catch-22 with the additional community support, and with Beacon Hill concerned Lexington will "open the floodgates" of towns seeking to separate from NSTAR or another power supplier.

    Selectman Peter Kelley suggested working the angle of other legislators being predisposed to support a home rule petition and contact as many offices as possible to illustrate how invested Lexington is in this specific home rule petition.