BUCKSPORT, Maine — After 13 years of on-again, off-again talks, Bucksport is finally getting natural gas.
A resolve signed Thursday by the Bucksport Town Council approved a deal between the town and Bangor Gas Co. that will extend the utility from the Verso Paper mill to the school complex in the heart of Bucksport.
The agreement comes just seven months after negotiations to extend service into Bucksport fell through, with each side frustrated with the other.
Representatives from the company said the roughly 12,500 feet of main gas line will be laid between May and the end of October. When all is said and done, Bucksport’s high school, middle school and two elementary schools — as well as the Regional School Unit 25 headquarters — will make the switch to natural gas.
RSU 25 Superintendent Jim Boothby said Friday that the district will save $125,000 in heating costs for the 2014-2015 school year after switching to natural gas.
“If they [the councilors] didn’t sign this tonight, I would have walked out, because my budget would have been shot,” Boothby said Thursday, only half-jokingly, as officials from Bangor Gas and councilors signed the deal, which was approved by unanimous vote.
The town also will hook up the public safety building on the corner of Franklin and Elm streets, which houses the Police and Fire departments. Part of the agreement between the town and the utility is that Bucksport will convert all municipal facilities along the pipeline to natural gas.
Jerry Livengood, general manager for Bangor Gas Co., said Thursday that about 40 residents, businesses and other property owners along the proposed main line have applied for natural gas connections. Interest in natural gas is still high, as prices continuously fall well below those for heating oil.
“Anyone along the route is encouraged to sign up for service,” he said. “We’re excited to finally bring natural gas to Bucksport.”
Where there were disagreements in the past about when, how and at what cost Bangor Gas would expand in Bucksport, the new deal seemingly falls entirely in favor of the town.
Bangor Gas expected the town to pay its share of the extension — called the “contribution in aid of construction” — entirely up front. It also said the expansion wouldn’t be possible without tax breaks in the form of tax increment financing, which the town said it would use only to offset that contribution.
Livengood and other company officials said no deal would be possible without those conditions, and in October, Bucksport left the table. In December, the town filed a complaint against Bangor Gas Co. with the Public Utilities Commission for being opaque in its estimates and making demands that the town deemed unreasonable.
The two sides came back together in January for renegotiations, Town Manager Michael Brennan said Friday, although comments from the town as late as March indicated that negotiations were stalling again. At that point, officials openly said they were pursuing other options for bringing natural gas to town.
But at some point, the air cleared and a deal was struck. It became official Thursday as the agreement was formalized and signed.
“I think that break was helpful,” Brennan said. “In any relationship there are ups and downs, but we were able to discuss things and come to a very positive resolve. Hopefully it will be a strong partnership for years to come.”
In the end, there is no TIF district. As for the town’s share of construction costs, Bucksport will pay a total of $300,000 — $200,000 at the start of construction, and another $50,000 at the end of Phase 1, which includes the main line extension from Verso to the schools along portions of Main, Elm, Summer and Central streets and Broadway.
Bucksport also will pay 50 percent of costs — not to exceed $50,000 — for Phase 2, which will take place in 2014. At that time, the main will be expanded around the block bound by Main, Elm, Franklin and Central streets.
Livengood demurred when asked about the end result of talks between his company and the town, saying only that “it was a passionate negotiation.”
In the agreement, the town also agreed to drop its complaint to the PUC, and to take a less-active position in Bangor Gas Co.’s rate review process before the PUC. The town was granted intervenor status in December.
On Friday, Brennan said the provision of the agreement did not mean Bucksport wouldn’t advocate for the town’s residents and businesses, but that it would only involve itself in the case if things move in a direction that might hurt the town.
“As long as our interests and Bangor Gas’ interests are the same, we’ll support what Bangor Gas is doing,” he said. “But on any point where they diverge, we’re looking out for the town’s interests.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.