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DiNatale refiles bill to let cities, towns form own utilities

By Michael Hartwell,

FITCHBURG -- Rep. Stephen DiNatale, D-Fitchburg, is hoping the seventh time is the charm.

Last week he refiled the muni choice bill, which has failed to pass six previous times.

The bill intends to make it easier for cities and towns to form their own electricity utility by letting them purchase the existing infrastructure from an investor-owned utility company at a price determined by the Department of Public Utilities. The IOU would not have the ability to refuse the sale.

"If the citizenry want a change, I think they should have the option," said DiNatale. He said the IOUs have monopolies, and this bill can help ease the power that comes with monopolies.

The bill had previously been submitted by state Rep. Jay Kaufman, D-Lexington, and DiNatale was a co-signer. DiNatale said Kaufman is letting him take the lead this time so he can concentrate on revenue and tax issues.

"I welcome the challenge," said DiNatale. He said he doesn't know if the odds of it passing are different this year.

Cathy Clark of Lunenburg, founder of the activist group Get Rid of Unitil, said she's hopeful there will be more bipartisan support this session.

She said Rep. Dan Winslow, R-Norfolk, spoke in favor of the bill last session and hopes he can bring more Republicans on board.

"I would hope that all lawmakers see the common-sense need for this legislation," said Clark. She urged members of the public to contact their representatives in support of the bill.

Alec O'Meara, spokesman for the Unitil utility company, said his company's perspective has not changed on the issue. He endorsed a January 2010 report from the state's Department of Energy Resources on municipal utilities.

That report said the 41 existing munis in the state have lower rates on average, but newly established munis are expected to have higher rates for years to absorb the cost of purchasing the infrastructure. It also said municipalization should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

O'Meara encouraged Massachusetts residents to read that report and said it shows the pros and cons of municipalization from an impartial perspective.

He added Unitil will look at the language of the bill in case there are any changes.

Patrick Mehr of the Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice said the bill's passage is essential.

"After every major storm it becomes clearer that the large utilities do not invest enough in their infrastructure to make it resilient," he said.

Mehr said the bill would bring more competition into electricity and that munis would not actually have to be formed for it to be effective. The easier process to form munis would give the IOUs an incentive to perform better.

He said he believes the majority of legislators in Massachusetts support the bill, but the bill fails to make it out of committee because of lobbying efforts against it.