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Municipal-utility bill gains power

By Chris Camire,

BOSTON -- Area lawmakers are once again pushing a bill to give cities and towns the tools to form their own utilities.

The decade-old legislation has gained traction in recent years, making it out of committee during the previous legislation session, but failing to reach the House floor for a vote.

The Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy was scheduled to vote today on whether to recommend the bill during the current session.

The legislation could lead to the creation of the state's first municipal electric utility in 86 years, which lawmakers say would result in better service and prices.

State Rep. Stephen DiNatale, D-Fitchburg, said the bill was previously held up over concerns with how the value of poles, wires and other equipment in a community will be determined.

Under the legislation, the utility would be required to sell the infrastructure to a municipality that wants to form its own utility once the Department of Public Utilities determines the value of poles.

"There is some language in the bill that I have some concerns with that would add to the cost that a municipality would have to pay, although we don't want to jeopardize the importance of passing the bill," said DiNatale, who sits on the committee that will hear the bill. "The important piece is to get this over the finish line, get it through Ways and Means."

Should the bill reach the House floor, DiNatale said he is almost certain it will pass.

"It's difficult for anyone not to agree that this is an option that should exist for every municipality," he said.

For nearly a century, utility companies have been given veto power over municipalities' efforts to purchase poles and wires from the existing utility and establish their own light authority. This bill would remove that veto power.

Area officials have said their communities have been disadvantaged because of the lack of choice.

For example, Fitchburg pays one of the highest utility rates in Massachusetts despite having one of the state's lowest per-capita incomes. Fitchburg residents receive their electricity from Unitil Corp., as do Lunenburg, Townsend and Ashby.

Numerous businesses have closed in Fitchburg due to high utility prices, according to Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong.

According to a 2010 state Department of Energy Resources report, electricity rates at municipal light departments are significantly lower than at investor-owned utilities. In fact, in 2006, rates offered by the state's 41 so-called "munis" were an average of 30 percent less.

Calls to cut ties with Unitil were amplified after major power outages in the Fitchburg area during the ice storm of December 2008.

Should the bill pass, it remains unclear how many communities would act on it, said DiNatale, as it would likely cost millions of dollars to purchase the equipment.