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Money mars progress of 'Muni Choice Bill'

Anna Burgess,


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Fitchburg residents listen to speakers during a public hearing Sept. 24 on Unitil Corp.'s proposed rate increase in the Fitchburg Public Library. Legislators have said that intense lobbying by Unitil and other utilities has stalled an effort to give municipalities an opportunity to buy infrastructure and run their own utilities. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE / Ashley Green

FITCHBURG -- In the battle for municipal choice of energy providers, large corporations are winning, thanks, some lawmakers say, to the advantage of lobbying money and power.

When Unitil Corp. submitted a petition with the Department of Public Utilities in June to raise gas- and electric-distribution rates, its customers in North Central Massachusetts were not happy. The DPU has held two public hearings since then to gather community input as it considers whether to approve the rate hike.

At both hearings, Fitchburg state Rep. Stephen DiNatale has mentioned a bill he is sponsoring that, if passed, would give the city more choice in its energy provider. He added the bill has stalled for more than a decade, though, because of lobbying on behalf of Unitil and other large corporations.

The "Muni Choice Bill," House Bill 2866, would change the current law governing energy infrastructure, which says municipalities can construct their own infrastructure, but cannot pay an energy corporation to take over existing infrastructure. This law is almost 100 years old, said DiNatale, and it's time for a change.

"The Municipal Choice Bill is not something that communities are going to rush to do, Fitchburg being one of them," he said. "But we should have that option as a community."

It would be an expensive option, DiNatale said, and the city might have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase the existing infrastructure from Unitil.

As Ashburnham Municipal Light Plant General Manager Michael Rivers pointed out, though, having the option could put pressure on electricity distributors.

"It would be nice to have that option to keep Unitil accountable to the community because they do have a monopoly right now," Rivers said.

Ashburnham has owned its town's energy infrastructure since the private company that used to operate it, Greene Electric Co., went out of business.

"Now, we get calls all the time from people in surrounding towns, asking what it would cost to take over," Rivers said.

He said Ashburnham Municipal Light Plant would "certainly support" a bill that gave communities like Fitchburg an option.

The current version of H 2866 includes a provision that would only allow three communities each year to switch over to municipal control, and another provision that would require two votes by the community to confirm the switch.

The bill would also ensure that energy corporations would have no "right to refuse" if a municipality wanted to purchase the infrastructure.

"If you as a community want to do it, and agree to do it, they must sell," DiNatale said.

This is the fourth year he has sponsored the bill. Lexington representative Jay Kaufman was the lead sponsor for 12 years before DiNatale took over.

In 2009 and 2011, the bill made it as far as the House Ways and Means Committee, but no further action was taken. In other years, it never made it to the Ways and Means Committee.

The bill is currently before the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, and DiNatale is afraid that lobbying and donations from Unitil and other energy corporations will prevent the bill from making it to the floor for a vote.

This has happened in other years, he said.

This year, lobbyists paid by Unitil have donated $200 to the campaign fund of Rep. Thomas Golden, D-Lowell, the House chairman of the Telecommunications Committee, and $200 to the campaign fund of Rep. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, the Senate chairman of the committee.

An employee at Unitil subsidiary Usource Energy also made a $100 donation to Golden this year.

Asked whether donations of this size affect how he votes, Downing said, "Simply put, no."

"I support the bill and believe it ought to be law," he said. "We take (the corporations') opinion into consideration, but that's not how we make decisions."

In 2009, when the Muni Choice Bill was favorably reported to the Ways and Means Committee, the donation amounts to Telecommunications Committee members were much larger. Unitil executives donated $1,200 to Michael Morrissey, the committee chairman, and $500 to Therese Murray, then president of the Senate.

"The corporations weren't happy when we moved the bill the first time," said Downing. "Their efforts in opposition are the main thing holding it back now. That's always been the way it is."

He added that their opposition "absolutely" played a role in 2009 and 2011, when the bill never made it out of the House Ways and Means Committee.

With the bill repeatedly stalled, Fitchburg residents don't have to look far to see what they're missing out on.

"In general, municipal light departments have lower rates," said Rivers. "Currently, in Ashburnham, we're half the price of some Unitil communities."

"And we have local control," he added. "The board that governs the department is elected directly by the voters in town, and our line crew is directly in the town all the time. Their response time is faster and generally better than big energy corporations."

If Fitchburg and other municipalities did have the option of municipal control, they might pursue it, which is why Unitil lobbies against giving them the option.

"The Muni Choice Bill takes (business) away from Unitil," said DiNatale. "I think there's a great deal of pressure not to pursue it."

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