Pasted Graphic

Monday, December 13, 2010

Unitil protesters argue for ‘muni bill’


FITCHBURG —  Two years ago, Cathy Clark of Lunenburg was sitting in her kitchen with a friend, a generator running because the electricity had been out for four days.

“We were talking about the power outage during an ice storm in ’96-’97. The power stayed off for four or five days, and I thought, ‘this just can’t go on,’ ” Ms. Clark said.

She started a petition drive, “Get Rid of Unitil,” three days before the new year in 2008. Electricity to all of Unitil’s 28,000 customers was not restored in Townsend, Ashby, Lunenburg and Fitchburg until after about two weeks — and then, with the help of the National Guard and out-of-state utility workers.

The petition drive resulted in more than 5,000 signatures, public hearings by the state Department of Public Utilities, and committees formed in Townsend and Lunenburg to research alternative power options for towns.

But the Unitil opponents are far from satisfied. Ms. Clark and about 20 others stood out on the sidewalk in front of Unitil’s Fitchburg facility in the pouring rain yesterday afternoon, holding signs saying, “Beacon Hill, are you listening?”

Thomas Forgues of Fitchburg has never taken part in a demonstration against Unitil before, but read in the newspaper that Ms. Clark was holding a rally on the second anniversary of the 2008 ice storm.

“I told my wife about it, and here we are. I don’t like that I don’t have a choice of who I purchase electricity from. I don’t like that I get an automated phone answer when I call customer service. And the rates are too high. I had to buy a generator because of that ice storm after a week of hearing them say that the power was going to be back on tomorrow. Well it was two weeks and a day before it did, and I don’t want to have to go through that experience again,” Mr. Forgues said.

Mr. Forgues and Ms. Clark are supporting what is now being called the “muni bill,” which will be filed for the state Legislature’s consideration for the fourth time next month. The bill would allow cities and towns in Massachusetts to set up their own municipal electric utilities.

It was passed by a joint committee for Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy for the first time, but killed by the House Ways and Means committee, according to Patrick R. Mehr, a Lexington Electric Utilities Committee member.

“We did some interesting research and found that NSTAR’s lobbyist, Shanley Fleming (of Boston), was paid $105,750; Joyce & Joyce (of Beverly) were paid $16,000 by National Grid, and O’Neill & Associates (of Boston) were paid $2,250 by Unitil; a total of $124,000. Lobbying for the muni bill, mainly by the Massachusetts Municipal Association, totaled a little under $3,000,” Mr. Mehr said.

State Rep. Charles A. Murphy D-Burlington, was a proponent of the muni bill, and was one of 47 co-sponsors in December 2008.

“In February 2009 he became chairman of the House Ways and Means, by April 2009 he received $7,900 in political donations from many of the lobbyists and employees of the utility companies, and he effectively killed the bill in July 2010 by sitting on it. I have a copy of a letter that Burlington selectmen sent to him asking that he support the bill,” Mr. Mehr said.

About 150 cities and towns in Massachusetts have endorsed the muni bill, according to Mr. Mehr. Forty-one cities and towns already have their own municipal utilities, but the last one got permission to do so in 1926. Backers of the muni bill said that under current law, existing utilities in effect have veto power over any new municipal utilities.

Jacquelyn Poisson was holding the “Beacon Hill are you listening?” sign. She said she had been following the efforts to get rid of Unitil for the past two years.

“Their service issues aside, they have exorbitant rates and will be filing for an increase. That is unacceptable. They charge the most in this region,” she said.

Small-business owners Jenny A. Papagni and William M. Welch of Main Street Fitchburg agree with Ms. Poisson.

“The bills are so high that we have to go on a payment plan and don’t get finished paying for the winter until June, and this is with keeping the thermostat very low and only heating about 2,000 square feet for customers. We wear jackets and mittens all the time,” Mr. Welch said.

The Department of Public Utilities confirms that Unitil has sent a letter saying it intends to file for a rate hike.

“What will happen is that we will receive their rate case and suspend it for an investigation if it warrants one, and hold public hearings,” said Timothy Shevlin, DPU’s executive director.

Mr. Shevlin said that Unitil was granted an electricity rate hike in 2002, a gas rate increase in 2007 and another electricity rate increase in 2008.

Unitil’s media relations manager, Alec O’Meara, also confirmed the company’s intention to file for a rate hike, saying the “adjustment will be made to the distribution portion of the bill,” which is approximately 31 percent of the bill to customers.

He added that the company had made its intentions known since July, but said he could not disclose the amount of the potential rate increase or the reasons for the application until it is filed with the state.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


FITCHBURG —  Unitil Corp. plans to file with the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities for a base rate case that would adjust distribution charges, Unitil spokesman Alec O’Meara said Monday. Terms won’t be disclosed until the case is filed, he said. Mr. O’Meara could neither confirm nor deny a rate increase. Because of a reporter’s error, a description of the planned filing was incorrect in Monday’s Telegram & Gazette. Also, Bedford selectmen sent a letter asking state Rep. Charles A. Murphy, D-Burlington, to support a bill allowing communities to set up their own municipal utilities, according to Patrick R. Mehr, a Lexington Electric Utilities Committee member. The town that sent the letter was incorrect in the same story.