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Proposed law called threat to local utilities

NORTH ATTLEBORO – Legislation designed to allow communities to establish their own municipal electric departments is loaded with costly requirements for existing municipal utilities, according to the North Attleboro and Mansfield electric departments.

Both of the local municipal electric departments have sent letters to state legislators raising concerns about provisions in the bill that would affect the 41 municipal electric departments already in existence.

“I have to say it is seemingly a blatant effort to strip away local control,” said James Moynihan, general manager of North Attleboro Electric Department. “A bill designed to allow communities to create municipal light plants has morphed into something that adds costs to existing light plant customers by imposing new requirements.”

Mansfield Municipal Electric Department Director Gary Babin agreed, saying, “The legislation has an adverse effect on the 41 municipal electric departments that already exist.”

Moynihan said the legislation could cost the average North Attleboro customer about $155 per year. Provisions written into the bill would require the department to participate in renewable energy programs and a state-created alternative and renewable energy portfolio.

Some of the extra money charged to customers would come back to the community, however, to offset energy efficiency and conservation programs. Moynihan said that isn’t necessary because the department already spends money on those types of programs.

Babin said the impact in Mansfield would total at least $660,000 per year.

And, Mansfield is concerned it would be required to join a state agency for renewable energy.

The town has already rejected joining the program, which costs about $110,000 per year, because it is not a good fit for the community.

“Once you join, there is no option to leave, so they could really jack up the fee and you’d have no choice but to pay it,” Babin said. Another key concern is that the legislation would open each community up to competition from other power companies.

Investor-owned utility companies do not generally own portions of power generation plants, while municipal electric departments negotiate to own small portions of plants, Babin said. Those costs are paid by the utility’s customers.

“If another company came in and was able to under-sell us, we’d start losing customers and our remaining customers would be responsible for paying our fixed costs. Their costs would go up, and once that starts, you’d have a cascading effect,” he said.

Both electric departments have contacted their state legislators, including state Rep. Betty Poirier, R-North Attleboro, detailing their concerns.

“I received letters from North Attleboro Electric and Mansfield Electric, so I’m very aware of the concerns both communities have. The bill seems to be punishing the municipals that already exist,” Poirier said. “I have serious doubts that this (legislation) will go anywhere. But if it moves forward, we’ll wage an all-out campaign to change some of the onerous new regulations.”

Poirier said she was surprised the legislation proposed changes for existing utilities, because it was their much-lauded performance during the cleanup from Tropical Storm Irene that prompted the legislation in the first place.

“North Attleboro and Mansfield had their power back on well before other communities,” Poirier said. “Not only do they perform maintenance more judiciously, their employees, for the most part, live in their service areas. They know every nook and cranny of their systems and know where the trouble spots are.”