Will the town trash Unitil?
Article considers municipal utility

By Patrick Cronin
January 02, 2009

HAMPTON, New Hampshire — Residents have mixed feelings about the proposed warrant article to have the town investigate dumping Unitil Corp. and establish a municipal electric utility department.

While some are all for it due to the company's widely criticized response to the Dec. 11 ice storm, others see it as being very costly.

Selectmen voted last week to put the article to voters in March due to the way the company handled the aftermath of the storm that caused power outages for hundreds of thousands around the state, including Hampton and other towns served by Unitil.

At the time, the board blasted the utility for its lack of communication and slowness restoring power after the storm that at one point left 90 percent of the town in the dark.

"I think its a good idea to explore it," said Selectman Bill Lally. "We are not alone. There are other cities and towns in Massachusetts looking into doing the same thing due to this latest debacle of Unitil."

Residents of Lunenburg, Mass., have started a petition to get rid of the electric company, while officials in Fitchburg, Mass., also want the company replaced.

Town Manager Fred Welch said the article doesn't propose any money being spent and only authorizes an investigation. The investigation would also look into the possibility of placing overhead utility lines underground to help prevent extended losses of essential utility service.

"This is just an informational thing," Lally said.

Lally was one of many residents without power for seven days.

"The people who got their lights back in a day or two probably don't have a thought one way or the other on this," Lally said. "But somebody like myself who was out for seven days due to a circuit breaker that just needed to be switched on ... it was just ridiculous and poor management."

Former selectman Fred Rice said he would be in favor of the town investigating starting its own utility company if surrounding communities joined them.

"I think it would be good if all of the other towns in the area did a similar thing and we ended up with a co-op, for we could have some buying power," Rice said.

Rice said Unitil's response during the storm was unacceptable.

"Unitil is in trouble," Rice said. "Not only here but every place they operate. They were just not prepared. It was like a football team going out in the field and never throwing a pass at practice.

"The workers did a great job but the management was totally out of it. They demonstrated total incompetence."

Budget committee member Mike Pierce called the proposed warrant article a bad idea.
"I think we should leave power to the power professionals," Pierce said. "Unitil has historically been a good neighbor. There is no question they missed the ball on this, but they will probably do better next time."

Welch said if the town did have a municipal utility, he believes the revenue that is currently being derived from Unitil would pay for the operation and allow it to charge lower electric rates, too.

"There are a number of municipal utilities in this state and a number in New England," Welch said. "Every single one makes a substantial profit. The system would also be better managed. I have never seen an electric utility function like Unitil. I've seen ones with bigger outages and restored in much shorter time. It bothers the living daylights out of me that the town had to put up with this."

Welch also noted the town voted to establish its own utility back in 1912 and 1913.

"It was voted unanimously, but never consummated," Welch said.