March 13, 2013

Maine town officials cool to idea of natural-gas surcharge

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Town councilors and selectmen from Cumberland, Falmouth and Yarmouth who met Tuesday night to discuss their plan to bring natural gas to the towns disagreed on whether to suggest a fee to fund local energy-efficiency programs.

The 5 percent surcharge on gas bills, suggested by Yarmouth Town Councilor David Craig, would be inserted into a memorandum of understanding between the towns and Summit Natural Gas, the chosen supplier for the project.

The idea drew objections from councilors and selectmen who were reluctant to tinker with the towns' relationship with Summit or impose unexpected costs for residents in what so far has been an amicable planning process.

"I think what we have now is adequate," said Cumberland Selectman David Gruber, "and I have the paranoia that (Summit) could say, 'See ya later.'"

But concern about the fee could be moot, said Yarmouth Town Councilor Leslie Hyde, who said the memorandum of understanding is not a legally enforceable document -- only a framework to work toward agreed-on goals.

The state's Public Utilities Commission, not local governments, have the regulatory authority, said Cumberland Town Attorney Alyssa Tibbetts.

"To nitpick the smaller issues when the overall agreement is not a binding legal document kind of undermines the whole process," Hyde said.

In addition to discussing the fee, the officials agreed to loosen language in the agreement that would require towns to convert to natural gas in municipal buildings and schools, after councilors from Falmouth said they had recently replaced a boiler in their middle school.

Most of the discussion, however, was about how the towns plan to accommodate a break-neck construction schedule that will bring gas service to 80 percent of residential customers by the end of the fourth year and 90 percent of commercial customers within three years.

Crews will lay at least 1,000 feet of pipe per day, said William Shane, who is Cumberland's town manager and a civil engineer. The towns will have to hire and share a team of inspectors to ensure that construction crews properly repair streets and customers' lawns after installing the underground connections.

Shane said he also plans to hire college engineering interns to help administer a streamlined permitting process between the towns.

"This is 1.2 million feet of pipe," Shane said. "This is huge."

 

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

 

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