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Lexington municipal-utility movement finds kindred spirit in Townsend

By Damien Fisher
Posted: 02/20/2009

TOWNSEND -- The leader of the movement to create a municipal utility in Lexington is impressed with Townsend's work to find an alternative to Unitil.

"I'm impressed they are forming a committee," Patrick Mehr said.

Mehr is now eight years into his effort to form a municipal utility in Lexington and get rid of NSTAR. He is focusing on changing the state law that allows municipalities to form their own utilities.

"The only approach we believe is feasible is to change the century-old law," Mehr said.
The law allows municipalities to purchase a utility company's assets in the community, such as poles and wires, after a fair price has been set by the Department of Public Utilities, Mehr said.

The utility company can reject the sale price and the municipality is then free to set up a competing utility company, Mehr said.

Setting up a competing company is not economically viable, Mehr said. He wants the law changed to remove the utility company's right to refuse the sale price.

Gary Shepherd is chairman of the Townsend committee investigating Unitil alternatives and likes some of the ideas Mehr has about forming a municipal utility.

Shepherd is not sure how quickly the state legislature will move to make changes to the law.

"I think we're outside the interests of Beacon Hill," Shepherd said.

Townsend formed its committee following the December ice storm that left Ashby, Fitchburg, Lunenburg and Townsend without power for up to two weeks.

Shepherd said the problem with Townsend relationship to Unitil is not the storm.

"The problem is we have the highest rates and the poorest service," Shepherd said.

Shepherd wants to see what the other Unitil towns will do in response to the storm.

Mehr thinks Townsend, Ashby and Lunenburg could form a three-town utility and be a viable operation.

"Townsend might be too small on its own," Mehr said.