Ratepayers’ role in utility debated

Posted Aug. 22, 2010, at 7:03 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:07 p.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — Reviving a debate that gripped local officials and residents a decade ago, one town councilor this week brought up the issue of how the local water utility should be governed.

Ten years after the town condemned the water utility and took it over by eminent domain, Councilor Rob Jordan resurrected the issue, asking if ratepayers might have more of a role in the operation of the utility.

Bar Harbor took over the Bar Harbor Water Co., then an independent entity, in 2000 after the utility had agreed to be purchased by a Rockport-based firm that ran 17 water utilities in the state. In taking over Bar Harbor Water Co., which negated the purchase agreement, the town cited the need for local control over the water distribution system.

At the Town Council’s meeting last week, Jordan said that with current governance, it is possible that ratepayers might not hold any of Bar Harbor’s seven elected council member seats, and he wants to see if there might be a way to guarantee ratepayers a role in determining how the department is run.

“That’s the political component I’m trying to address,” Jordan said. “It’s just a matter of representation.”

Town Manager Dana Reed cautioned against having the water department become an independent entity again. In the previous arrangement, the water company often could not or did not coordinate its work with the local highway department, he said, which would have allowed them to repair underground pipes at the same time local roads were being repaired or improved. Consequently, he said, roads sometimes had to be torn up again later just for water department repairs.

“I think it’s working out much better,” Reed said. “[It’s] more efficient.”

None of Jordan’s fellow councilors said they wanted to go back to having the utility be completely independent from the town’s control. Some said they had not heard any comments, either from residents or town staff, about why a change might be needed.

“If it’s not broke, I don’t think we have to worry about fixing it,” vice chairman Sandy McFarland said. “I don’t think there’s a problem.”

Some councilors said they would be willing to revive an advisory panel of ratepayers that had been in existence a few years ago. Councilor Paul Paradis said that if ratepayers were willing to volunteer to serve on the advisory panel, he could support re-creating it.

“I’d be willing to try it and see what happens,” Paradis said. “The risk to me seems low at this point.”

Reed, however, cautioned the council against creating unnecessary bureaucracy that would have to meet and possibly hold hearings about water department matters. The town already holds public hearings about the water department budget and projects, he said. And, he said, if there are complaints about how the water depart-ment is run, creating a committee likely will not eliminate them.

“I don’t think it will accomplish that objective,” Reed said. “The town tries really hard to make sure its operations are transparent.”

Other councilors advocated for delay to see what ratepayers might say at a scheduled Sept. 7 public hearing on the water department’s 2011 budget.

“I’d like to wait and see what happens when we have our discussion about our [water department] budget,” chairman Ruth Eveland said.

According to Stan Harmon, the town’s finance director, the department’s budget is expected to increase next year. Operating expenses are expected to rise by 7 percent, revenues are expected to rise 7.7 percent, and rates are expected to increase 18 percent, he told the council Tuesday.

If the state Public Utilities Commission approves the rate increase, the town’s minimum quarterly rate of $47.70 would increase to $56.29. The annual rate for a typical four-person household would increase from about $279 to about $330, according to Harmon.

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