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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Petition backs local utilities

Unitil foes join muni supporters


LUNENBURG — An online petition asking the Legislature to make new municipal electric companies possible was launched one week ago and has already collected more than 1,200 signatures.

The Get-Rid-of-Unitil group of Central Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice have joined in this endeavor with an online petition.

“I’m pleasantly surprised at how quickly the petition has taken off. It’s common-sense legislation that all communities in the state would benefit from, and at the very least, it would introduce competition and improve service,” said Cathy Driscoll Clark of Get-Rid-of-Unitil. The state has 41 municipal utilities, but no new ones can be created without an act of the Legislature.

Get-Rid-of-Unitil was started by area residents in response to power outages in Lunenburg, Townsend, Ashby and Fitchburg during and after the December 2008 ice storm.

The Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice is an umbrella organization that represents more than 120 cities, towns and organizations, including the Massachusetts Municipal Association, MASSPIRG, and Environment Massachusetts. The alliance has endorsed House bill 3087 and Senate bill 1527 to amend “obsolete language in a century-old state law that gives investor-owned utilities, like Unitil and NStar, a permanent monopoly,” according to organizer Patrick Mehr, who is also a member of the Lexington Electric Utility Committee.

Mr. Mehr has been on that committee for nine years, studying and researching utility companies.

“I think it is a very strong response and the message is clear: People are angry and frustrated with their utility companies and want to have a choice,” said Mr. Mehr.

“The four Unitil communities endorsed this legislation before the December ice storm, and I can understand why, as Unitil customers are paying the highest rates in the state,” he added. He said Lexington’s company, NStar, has rates almost as high as Unitil’s.

Lunenburg’s Utility Task Force is supporting the legislation and testified at the state’s Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy joint committee hearings in September, according to Chairman William Gustus.

State Rep. Stephen L. DiNatale, D-Fitchburg, agrees with Mr. Mehr on the matter of choice, saying, “This would be a victory for any municipality that wishes to gain control of their energy dependence. It will provide an option that may compel investor-owned utilities to improve service and control costs.”

State Sen. Jennifer L. Flanagan, D-Leominster, and state Rep. Jennifer E. Benson, D-Lunenburg, are co-sponsors of the bill.

“This legislation, along with every piece of legislation, is subject to the legislative process. I will continue to advocate that this bill be released from committee. In addition, I am looking forward to seeing the results of a feasibility study on municipal departments being done by the Department of Energy Resources,” said Ms. Flanagan.

Ms. Benson has sent information about the petition to the chairman of the Public Utilities Committee saying, “I want the committee to see the high level of public support this legislation is receiving. I want to thank Cathy Clark and everyone who signed this petition for helping us move this process along.”

If the legislation is not moved out of committee before the middle of March and voted upon, the bill will die.