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Op-Ed: Candidate: Allow towns to establish their own utilities

Thursday, September 6, 2012

As president of the Old Greenwich Association, I have spent the past couple of years fielding calls from angry residents every time their power goes out. I can usually help by directing folks to shelters and local relief organizations, but directing them to Northeast Utilities and CL&P has generally been a pointless exercise. I share the cautious optimism of this paper's editorial page (Aug. 28), that a new man at the top of Northeast, legislation that "bolsters preparedness," and some "upgrades," may help the next time storm clouds roll in, but honestly, we can do better.

In this past legislative session, our state's Public Utilities Regulatory Authority was tasked to review the practices of the utilities, establish emergency performance standards and review the utilities' responses after emergencies, with the threat of fines for standards not met. I'm not surprised the editorial staff is tepidly optimistic. First, the measures required are vague and open-ended, and the punishments will likely be miniscule compared to the corporate profits generated. The editors also bemoan the lack of true competition as the only way to make utility companies accountable to their customers.

It's this kind of double frustration ¦ of not being able to help the people in my community, combined with the tepid responses to many of the challenges we face here in town, that has led me to run for the state legislature this November. In addition to power outages and what the legislature considers a strong response, there are numerous ways to address local challenges at the state level. To help small businesses, I would like to increase state capital funding opportunities through a business incubator program for local companies who want to open or expand but can't get loans from large banks. I would engage state government to look at environmental challenges such as Binney Pond and its feeder streams and the Greenwich High School athletic field remediation as regional issues, so that Greenwich does not have to go it alone.

I want to get behind opportunities to make it more likely for women to increase "wealth," not just "income." Build and maintain a great school and university system that makes Connecticut a prime location for business because of an incredibly talented workforce. And I want to help solve our state budgetary challenges, but with an open mind, not through ideology.

But as far as our public utilities go, the time has come to make real changes, not just nibble around the edges. I would introduce legislation that would permit towns such as Greenwich to easily and responsibly purchase a utility company's now severely depreciated assets in order to establish municipal utilities. The benefits to doing this are significant. Jobs: If a town takes back the business of distributing electricity, it will be hiring a well-paid local workforce. Cost: A municipal electrical utility need only charge residents the cost of the power, plus the cost of its overhead. It need not turn a profit or pay a dividend, with those savings being realized by all local customers. Control: Instead of having a discussion in a conference room in Hartford about burying power lines or deciding which trees to trim, the decisions can be made locally. Response Times: With a local workforce, power outages and emergency responses will be handled by people who live in town and know the town. Competition: With this legislation, Northeast Utilities would be faced with real competition in the form of just the possibility that a town would establish its own municipal utility, effectively shrinking its paying customer base.

Is this a radical idea? No, many cities across the country do it. Several towns in Connecticut already do it, and regionally, Massachusetts is not giving up trying to make it happen, despite intense lobbying and spending by the corporate utilities. Why should we be satisfied with legislative moves that amount to a slap on the wrist and a boardroom promise to try to do better next time?

A municipal utilities bill that helped create jobs, saved people money and increased efficiency overall because of increased competition, would benefit the people of Connecticut, not just the corporate utilities who should have been doing a better job in the first place.

David Rafferty, of Old Greenwich, is the Democratic candidate for the 151st state House of Representatives seat.