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Electric-utility activists want municipal companies

By Matt Murphy,
Updated: 03/19/2010

BOSTON -- Two groups fed up with high electricity rates are urging the Legislature to pass a bill making it easier for cities and towns to set up their own municipal electric companies.

The activist groups -- Get-Rid-Of-Unitil and the Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice -- presented a petition with 2,275 signatures to state Rep. Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat and the House chairman of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy.

"I think you'll see in the statements we have here the many, many reasons why this bill should pass," said Cathy Clark, leader of Get-Rid-Of-Unitil.

The bill got a hearing at the Statehouse in September, but has failed to advance as lawmakers continue to study what they've described as an "incredibly complicated" issue.

Rather than send the bill to a study committee that would have killed any hope of it passing, Finegold's committee filed for an extension giving lawmakers until July 14 to make a recommendation for this session.

More than two-thirds of the signatures came from Fitchburg, Lunenburg, Townsend and Ashby, four communities served by Hampton, N.H.-based Unitil. The relationship between Unitil and customers in those communities has been rocky since a devastating ice storm in December 2008 left customers without service for up to two weeks.

Forty-one municipal electric companies are operating across the state, including those in Groton, Littleton and Concord.

Under current state law, communities that want to provide electricity on their own must enter into negotiations with the current provider to buy its equipment at a fair market price.