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Lunenburg to form task force to explore utility options

By Dan Magazu
Posted: 02/13/2009

LUNENBURG -- Town officials are looking for residents with a utility or business management background to join a task force that will investigate forming a municipal electric utility to replace Unitil.

"We're looking for people to volunteer," Board of Selectmen Chairman Tom Alonzo said during an interview on Thursday. "Ideally, people with business management and business proposal skills would join the task force."

Selectmen voted this week to form the task force.

The move is driven by utility provider Unitil's response to the Dec. 11 ice storm, as well as proposed state legislation that could make it easier for a community to form a municipal utility, according to Selectman David Matthews.

"As everyone knows by now, Unitil's response to the storm was completely unacceptable," Matthews said Thursday. "But also, with the legislation being considered at the state level, looking into this now makes sense."

House Bill 3319 would amend state law so that a community could purchase its electric infrastructure at a fair price determined by the Department of Public Utilities, according to Patrick Mehr, a member of the Lexington Electric Utility Committee.

Current law allows utility companies to simply reject a town's offer to purchase the infrastructure, Mehr told selectmen during a presentation in January.

The Lexington Electric Utility Committee is a group formed by the town of Lexington in 2000 to investigate alternatives to utility provider NSTAR. The group has been pushing the legislation for three years.

Alonzo said it's impossible to know how realistic the town's chances of implementing a municipal utility are until after the task force has investigated the issue.

"Forming this task force does not mean we feel that creating a municipal utility is what we definitely want to do," Alonzo said. "This is to answer some questions, and to allow us to reach out to other communities to see what it would take."

Matthews also said he has no idea if the town actually has a realistic chance of forming a municipal utility.

"It's just too early to tell," Matthews said. "But going through this process could at least create the threat of competition, and maybe force Unitil to get its act together."

Unitil spokesperson Wesley Eberle said Thursday that the company has no objections to towns exploring their options when it comes to municipal utilities.

"We understand the frustrations of customers who lost power for an extended period of time," Eberle said. "However, we believe a full and factual-based assessment will determine that Unitil is ... best equipped to serve the communities of North Central Massachusetts."

Eberle said the company's self-assessment of its response to the Dec. 11 ice storm, which is due out on Feb. 23, will demonstrate the extreme challenges created by the storm and the steps being taken to be better prepared in the future.

The company serves residents in Lunenburg, Fitchburg, Ashby and Townsend. Unitil has been under fire since the Dec. 11 ice storm, when many residents were without power for two weeks.

The Department of Public Utilities has since launched an investigation into the response of Unitil and other utility companies following the storm.

The Municipal Utility Task Force will consist of at least five members and as many as seven if there is enough interest, Alonzo said.

There are currently 41 communities in the state that operate a municipal utility, according to Mehr.

Town Manager Kerry Speidel said Thursday that she is crafting a document that explains exactly what the task force will be charged with carrying out.

"I will be reporting back to the board on Tuesday," Speidel said.