Pasted Graphic

Municipal-utility bill on move

By Chris Camire,

BOSTON -- A legislative committee gave the green light Tuesday to a bill that would make it easier for communities to establish municipal lighting plants.

Supporters of the proposal say it will pressure private utilities to improve service and lower their rates.

"It's to hold that over their heads and say we need better rates and, more importantly, we need better service," said state Rep. Stephen DiNatale, D-Fitchburg, who sits on the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy.

Fitchburg residents receive their electricity from Unitil Corp., as do Lunenburg, Townsend and Ashby.

The legislation has been around for a decade. It was also recommended out of committee last session but failed to come up for a vote in the House or Senate.

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.

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.

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.

That could cost millions of dollars, but DiNatale said Fitchburg residents may be willing to support a one-time tax hike if it means they can lower their electric bills over the long term.

"I've had people say I'd give you $80 if it meant ending the stranglehold Unitil has on the city of Fitchburg," DiNatale said.