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'Munis best option' for electricity

By Caroline Keras, Correspondent
Posted: 02/20/2009

TOWNSEND -- Local ratepayers have been calling for the removal of Unitil since the ice storm of 2008.

Lexington formed an Electric Utility Committee to study the problem and that prompted the Townsend Board of Selectmen to form its own ad hoc committee to explore alternatives to Unitil.

"The residents of Lexington have been unhappy for a long time about the quality of service with our utility company," said Patrick Mehr, a member of Lexington's Electric Utility Committee, during a visit with Townsend selectmen on Tuesday.

Mehr suggested forming an individual municipal utility company, or "Muni."

"Small is beautiful in the business of distributing electricity," Mehr said.

Currently Unitil, NStar, National Grid and Western Mass. Electric hold a near-monopoly on electricity distribution in Massachusetts.

"Combined, these four companies serve 85 percent of the population of Massachusetts," Mehr said.

Some 41 towns across the commonwealth, including Groton, have formed their own Munis.
A Muni cannot be created, however, until a provision in state law is overturned.

"The statute says that if the utility companies don't want to sell, a town can't start putting up poles," Mehr said.

Mehr and the rest of his committee is trying to convince the Massachusetts Legislature to pass a proposed bill that would allow three individual utility entities to be formed per year.

The proposed bill has been killed the past three sessions by the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. But with personnel changes in some of the committees, many hope that the proposed bill passage this year.

"I think (the utility companies) are working under what we, the Legislature, gave them for regulations and we need to tighten that," said state Rep. Stephen DiNatale.

DiNatale was recently appointed to the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy.

Mehr said Munis are the best option for several reasons.

"These town entities provide much better service and charge less than the four major companies," Mehr said.

From July 2007 through June 2008, the average Unitil customer paid $105 per month for service while Groton residents paid $55 a month to their Muni.

"To me, it is the best kept secret in Massachusetts," said Mehr. He believes Lexington could save $600,000 yearly by running electricity to the high school through its own utility company.

"We could hire eight teachers without raising a penny in taxes." Another benefit to Munis is the control it gives towns regarding such details as using renewable or "green" energy to generate power.

The town could also place the electrical wires underground more easily. Mehr, who grew up in Paris, France, said he never saw a utility wire until he moved to Lexington.

The project does not come cheaply, however. But despite the potential cost and past contention, many will do whatever it takes to ensure that Unitil is removed and replaced.

"I genuinely think that they don't care," Selectman David Funaiole said.