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Town-owned electrical plant will be studied

By Brian Kelly / Staff Writer Thursday, May 13, 2004

The feasibility of building and operating a town-owned electric utility plant will be researched and studied by the Electric Utility Ad-hoc Committee on behalf of the selectmen.

By approving Article 26 by a 138-19 vote, Town Meeting "encourages the efforts of the Selectmen to explore and evaluate the option of establishing ... a municipal lighting and gas plant" and "supports the enactment of legislation confirming that a municipality can purchase electric assets to form a municipal lighting plant," according to the motion filed under Article 26 by the board at the request of the Ad-hoc committee. Committee Chairman Paul Chernick said the move was "step zero" in the process, and said a plan on how to conduct a feasibility study - including how much it will cost - will be presented at the next annual or special Town Meeting after issues regarding municipalization are resolved in the state Legislature.

According to Chernick, there are approximately 2,000 publicly owned utility plants in the country right now, including one in neighboring Concord. The belief of the Ad-hoc committee is that electricity rates would decrease by 20-25 percent from the rates currently offered by NStar if a municipal utility were built in town, means a savings of $250-320 a year for each household. Chernick also said commercial, industrial, and municipal consumers could receive up to 14 percent lower rates, and the town could save about $150,000 a year on electricity costs.

Additional advantages Chernick cited in the presentation included improved reliability, fewer power outages, retiring the substation in Lexington Center and potentially using it for much needed parking, moving wires underground, and removing double poles at a much faster rate than Verizon currently does.

"Legislation to clarify the municipalization process, supported by 108 communities, is currently in the works," said Chernick, "but NStar is lobbying hard against such legislation."

The passage of the article, which was unanimously supported by the selectmen and the Appropriation Committee, and by a majority of the Capital Expenditures Committee, "reaffirms Lexington's support for legislative action," said Chernick, who added a feasibility study would cost the town about $150,000 if conducted.

"If [a] study shows a Lexington muni to be economically attractive, we [would] return to Town Meeting for approval to proceed," said Chernick.

"The approval was quite overwhelming, and I think it's a clear signal that Lexington is very serious about forming its own municipal utility," said Patrick Mehr, a Precinct 3 Town Meeting member and member of the Ad-hoc committee. "We presented a draft bill to Dan Bosley, co-chairman of the Government Regulations Committee, a year and a half ago, which he is supporting. It clarifies state law regarding the process a town like Lexington has to go through to [operate] a municipal utility, and it has been endorsed by 108 communities. ...

"NStar and Mass Electric are fighting it tooth and nail because they want to keep their monopoly and don't want the public to discover they are being overcharged by 20-25 percent," said Mehr. "We're gearing up for a battle here." Mehr said opening a municipal electric utility in Lexington could take "several years."

"A rough estimate would be five years if we're lucky," he said. "Maybe even seven to ten years, or possibly never."