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Some Cities, Towns Say 'Enough' To Big Utilities

Bill Would Make It Easier For Communities To Run Their Own Power Companies

UPDATED: March 15, 2010  

BOSTON -- With snow, wind, rain and extreme heat comes the inevitability of power outages. Now 100 cities and towns, tired of what they said is chronic bad customer service and high bills, want the option to provide power to their communities by forming municipal electric companies.

An amendment to a decades-old bill would make that easier to accomplish.

Frank Gordon owns Sal's Pizza in Fitchburg. He said he's drowning in the high cost of electricity bills from Unitil.

"It's 20 to 30 percent higher every month, $2,400 to $2,800 on the last one," said Gordon.

But just a couple of miles away in Leominster, at Frank's bigger shop, National Grid's monthly charge is less than half that.

"It's $1,100 to $1,300. It's the utility that's out of whack," said Gordon.

Gordon, along with residents of 100 other cities and towns, recently signed a petition to pass a bill that would give consumers a chance to create their own municipal light companies.

"In some cases, municipals to a great extent, are much more efficient. There can be a 30 to 40 percent costs savings to consumers," said State Rep. Stephen DiNatale, D-Fitchburg. "It's something the commonwealth needs."

Forty-one communities have "munis, as they are called. But a new one hasn't been created since the 1920s. A loophole in the existing law gives the state's four investor-owned utilities the power to veto any sale, or charge beyond fair market value.

"You've got investor owned utilities that have deep pockets," said DiNatale. "They've got significant legal staffs that will bind this up."

The winter storm of 2008 that left some Unitil customers without electricity for almost two weeks, with some still charged for that period, stirred Kathy Clark of Lunenberg to form a muni task force. She said residents' high bills speak for themselves.

"It's the enormous billing that seems unjustified," said Clark.

Pointing to the frayed wires above her Clark said "you can see the deterioration of the infrastructure. We want affordable, reliable service."

Last week, the governor signed the petition in support of the munis. But a recent study by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources concludes that new municipal light companies are not likely to achieve lower rates. It's a finding that NStar, National Grid and Unitil all agree with.

Kathy Clark said she's confident that is not the case.

"Being stuck in a monopoly is just unfair. We have no other choices," she said.

This is the fourth time sponsors have tried to push the bill through Beacon Hill. If action isn't taken by next month, the bill will disappear for at least another year.

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