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House to consider 'muni' bills

By Dan Magazu,

LUNENBURG -- A pair of bills aimed at making it possible for communities to purchase their utility infrastructure and set up municipally-run utilities will go before the state House of Representatives Monday as a proposed amendment to the Municipal Relief Act.

House Bill 3087 and Senate Bill 1527, referred to as the "Muni" bills, would change state law so a community can purchase its electric infrastructure at a fair price determined by the state Department of Public Utilities. Current law allows investor-owned utilities, such as Unitil, to simply reject any offer.

Unitil services Lunenburg, Fitchburg, Townsend and Ashby.

The bills never made it out of the committee on Telecommunication, Utilities and Energy for a vote before the entire House, despite being filed several years in a row by state Rep. Jay Kaufman, D-Lexington.

But Kaufman, with the backing of several other representatives, including Stephen DiNatale, D-Fitchburg, and Jen Benson, D-Lunenburg, recently filed the legislation as an amendment to Gov. Deval Patrick's Municipal Relief Act.

"We want to put this before the full membership," DiNatale said Wednesday. "This will allow us to begin some spirited debate on it. Hopefully we can get a vote on the floor and enact it."

Unitil officials angered residents throughout North Central Massachusetts during the December 2008 ice storm, which knocked out power to the region for up to two weeks.

The Municipal Relief Act is aimed at helping municipalities save money. Highlights of the bill include requiring cities and towns to enroll retired local employees in Medicare, allowing communities the option of setting up a voluntary e-billing program and creation of an optional early retirement incentive program.

"Obviously, the muni legislation is clearly related to the act," DiNatale said. "This is another way to skin the proverbial cat. We're not going to wait and see what the committee does."

Benson said a group of legislators have been discussing filing the bills as an amendment to the Municipal Relief Act for more than a month now.

"We saw that it wasn't getting out of committee, so we wanted to find another way to get it before the entire House," Benson said. "The purpose of the Municipal Relief Act is to help cites and towns save money, so this is definitely a suitable amendment for that bill."

Benson said legislators are working hard to garner support for the amendment heading into Monday's session.

"Hopefully we can get enough members to push to have it voted on," she said.

If the amendment plan fails, the Committee on Telecommunication, Utilities and Energy still has until July to bring the two bills up for a vote.

Lunenburg resident Cathy Clark, the leader of a grassroots movement to oust Unitil from the region, said she's happy to see local legislators taking different steps to get the muni legislation voted on.

"It's time cities and towns have a choice," she said. "This is long overdue. I urge members of the legislature to pass the amendment."