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Petition presented to remove NSTAR in Lunenburg

By Dan Magazu
Posted: 01/14/2009

LUNENBURG -- Apparently communities served by Unitil aren't the only ones in the state who are unhappy with their utility provider.

Lexington resident Patrick Mehr made a presentation before the Lunenburg Board of Selectmen on Tuesday on the town's eight-year effort to remove NSTAR as its utility provider. The centerpiece of the effort is legislation that would make it easier for cities and towns to create their own municipal lighting authority.

"For a long time, residents in Lexington have been upset with the poor performance of NSTAR, which is one of the worst utilities nationwide," said Mehr, a member of the Lexington Electric Utility Committee, which the city formed in 2000 to examine possible alternatives to NSTAR.

Mehr said his committee has found that municipalities that operate their own utility charge residents lower rates and provide more reliable service than private utility companies.

"Municipal utilities are far more efficient, their rates are much lower, and the reliability of their service is much higher," Mehr said.

There are currently 41 communities in the state that operate a municipal utility. In 2007, NSTAR charged its customers 53 percent more than the average municipal utility, Mehr said.

NSTAR officials could not be reached for comment following Tuesday's meeting.

Current law allows utility companies to simply reject any attempt by a community to take over the electric infrastructure if the company does not want to sell it, according to Mehr.

"The current law effectively provides veto power to the utility company," Mehr said.

For three straight years the legislature has rejected attempts by a group of representatives to pass H3319, which would amend state law so that a community could purchase its electric infrastructure at a fair price determined by the Department of Public Utilities.

Mehr said the lobbying power of the utility companies has caused the proposal to fail.

Mehr said that even if it is not economically feasible for a town to purchase its infrastructure, the law will create the threat of competition for the utility companies which will force them to do a better job providing service.

"Instead of a monopoly, you would have a form of competition," Mehr said. "The simple fact that you could do it puts you in a different position with your suppliers. It will make companies like NSTAR and Unitil less lazy."

Mehr said Lexington has spent a lot of time, money, and effort determining the value of its electric infrastructure. He said if H3319 passes the city will move forward with creating a municipal utility.

"We have determined that it is economically feasible for us," Mehr said.

Mehr said the switch to a municipal utility will not cost residents in Lexington any money. The city plans on taking out a long-term municipal bond to pay for the infrastructure. The reduction in electric bills will be greater than the expense people will have to pay to cover the bond each year, Mehr said.

"The maneuver to a municipal utility would not cost the taxpayer a penny if the (municipal utility) is cost effective," Mehr said. "That's a huge if. We did the math. It may well be it's not economically feasible for your community."

Tom Alonzo, chairman of the Lunenburg Board of Selectmen, said the board will consider endorsing H3319 in the near future.