Pasted Graphic

Supporters of utility bill vow to try again in 2011

By Dan Magazu,


LUNENBURG -- Supporters of a bill that would have made it possible for communities to set up a municipal utility expressed disappointment Monday that state legislators failed to take action on it this session.

"It's a big disappointment because I felt like we had some good momentum," said Lunenburg resident Cathy Clark, an activist who has held rallies and started petitions in support of the Municipal Choice Legislation. "All we're asking for is choice. We definitely want to see this refiled next session."

The legislative session ended Saturday, which means supporters of the bill will have to wait and hope it gets refiled in January.

"People should rest assured that we're not going to give up on this," said state Rep. Stephen DiNatale, D-Fitchburg. "We're going to attack it again, and I'm hoping we can move it along through the process much sooner next time around."

DiNatale said the bill stalled this month when it went before the House Ways and Means Committee.

It would have amended state law to allow a city or town the option of purchasing a utility's infrastructure at a fair price determined by the state Department of Public Utilities. The community could then set up its own municipally run utility.

Current law allows private providers to simply reject any offer for the infrastructure.

Outrage from Unitil's response to the 2008 ice storm -- which left residents in Lunenburg, Fitchburg, Ashby and Townsend without power for up to two weeks -- helped build support for the bill.

Lunenburg Selectman Tom Alonzo said he's encouraged by how far the bill made it this session, noting that it had failed to make it out of the joint Committee on Telecommunication, Utilities and Energy during several previous years. It emerged from that committee in late June this year.

"I'm encouraged by the movement and progress," he said. "Before the ice storm, I hadn't even heard of this legislation. It's not dying, it's growing."

State Rep. Jen Benson, D-Lunenburg, said the bill would have stood a better chance if it had been reported out of the Telecommunication committee earlier in the year.

"I am disappointed because we worked right up to the end to get this done," she said. "The sooner we can move it out of committee next time around, the better."

More than 120 other cities and towns across the state have expressed support for the bill, along with the Massachusetts Municipal Association and the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group.

Gov. Deval Patrick has also said he supports it. But Townsend Selectman Robert Plamondon said he never had much faith the bill would pass.

"I'd be interested in knowing what kind of pressure was brought to bear on those people from the utility companies," he said. "I always thought it was a long shot."

Advocates for the bill say every community in the state stands to benefit from the legislation because it will create the threat of competition, which could pressure private utility companies to improve services or lower rates.

Clark said the short-term focus of her anti-Unitil group will now shift toward fighting a rate hike she expects Unitil to submit to the Department of Public Utilities some time this fall.

"They recently got a rate hike of 4.3 percent approved for their coverage area in New Hampshire," Clark said. "I'm anticipating they will look for something similar here, so we're getting ready to fight that."