A broken streetlight stands on Palmer Avenue in a Portland neighborhood off outer Washington Avenue. Multiple LED streetlights are out in the neighborhood and their repair is in dispute. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A contract dispute between the city of Portland and Central Maine Power over who has to pay to repair underground power conduits has stalled the repair of two dozen city streetlights for up to six months.

CMP, which delivers electricity in southern Maine, says Portland has to fix problems in those conduits; the city says it has been the utility’s responsibility and remains so. The matter is before state regulators, who are accepting comments on a regulatory change that would clearly make municipalities responsible.

The outcome of the case could affect more than 50 Maine towns and cities that have bought or want to buy streetlights from CMP to upgrade them with energy-efficient bulbs. The decision could also have a profound impact on municipal budgets if the maintenance costs shift from CMP to local public works departments.

“We are talking potentially a lot of money,” said Portland Public Works Director Chris Branch. “I have no idea how much it would cost.  The reason we haven’t looked at it is because we didn’t think we were going to have to.”

Streetlights in parts of downtown Portland and some housing subdivisions are powered via thin conduits – 1 or 2 inches around – about 18 inches underground. Corrosion from moisture is a common problem, Branch said.

Although electricians can access wires through surface panels, the extra costs to taxpayers to take over maintenance could be massive, he noted.

Just as alarming from a public safety point of view is darkened streetlights. Branch said some residents who live near the broken lights are frustrated after months of inaction. In May, the city sent CMP a list of 24 malfunctioning lights, most in residential subdivisions in Portland’s northwest corner.

All those lights are still out, according to city officials.

“We’ve had people who have had lights out since last fall,” Branch said. “We’ve been trying to get stuff fixed and we haven’t been able to.”

CHANGING OWNERSHIP

Since 2013, municipalities have been able to buy streetlights from CMP. Portland signed a purchase agreement with CMP in 2017 as part of an $8.5 million upgrade to convert standard lights to LEDs – light-emitting diodes – and install “smart city” technology such as WiFi.

The contract spells out that Portland owns “streetlighting hardware,” which includes lights, housing and fixtures, but its maintenance responsibility ends at the light fuse. Under the agreement, CMP still owns and maintains dedicated street-lighting conductors that power the lights.

But late last year, when Portland asked CMP to fix underground lines, the company said it would perform the work, but the city had to pay for it.

That demand directly contradicted the language of Portland’s contract, said Associate Corporation Counsel Jennifer Thompson in a May 15 letter to CMP.

CMP “is obliged to timely repair inoperable feeds and do so at its own expense,” Thompson said. “Any proposal to bill the city for CMP’s repair of its own infrastructure would require an amendment of the agreement. The City does not agree to such an amendment.”

City officials also bristled when CMP last month asked its regulators, the Maine Public Utilities Commission, to amend its statewide terms and conditions to add language to make it clear that when towns and cities own streetlights, they have to fix underground feeds, too.

Portland has asked the PUC to reject the request, arguing that CMP is trying to get out of the contractually required dispute resolution process by unilaterally changing the regulations.

“Rather than attempting to negotiate, or referring the dispute to the Commission directly, CMP has elected to request … revisions, skirting scrutiny of its obligations under the agreement altogether,” Portland Sustainability Director Troy Moon wrote to the PUC earlier this month.

EVOLVING TERMS

A change to state regulations would affect other towns and cities that have opted to buy streetlights from CMP.

Officials in municipalities near Portland say they have a similar understanding of their contracts with CMP. South Portland filed a public comment with the PUC supporting Portland’s arguments.

Scarborough, which is undertaking a $916,000 LED conversion of 1,200 streetlights, intends to submit comments in Portland’s favor, too, said Stephen Buckley, assistant public works director.

“In that contract we signed with them, the fuse is the point of demarcation, the point of the light to the fuse is ours, the fuse to the power line is CMP’s,” Buckley said. “They are disputing that, saying that when they were originally doing the contract they overlooked that part.”

CMP says when Portland bought the streetlights, it also assumed maintenance of the underground conduits. The company’s streetlight rate schedule, which dates to 2002, outlines that customers, not the company, are responsible for all underground repairs and maintenance.

The contract language about ownership was meant to address power from overhead lines, not underground cables, CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said in an interview. Most of Maine’s streetlights are powered with overhead lines.

Towns and cities should have known that they would have to pay for underground lines when they agreed to buy the lights, she added.

“When we have discussions with towns we are very clear that maintenance is their responsibility and that they truly understand what they have to do, because then it is a local taxpayer issue and not a ratepayer issue,” Hartnett said. “We are very upfront about that.”

CMP is not shirking its contract obligations, Hartnett added. The company has discussed the issue with Portland officials twice and fixed at least 10 lights at its own expense, she said.

With 54 towns and cities in Maine that have bought or are in the process of buying streetlights, CMP believes asking the PUC for a regulatory clarification is the best course.

“Terms and conditions tend to get rewritten as these situations warrant,” Hartnett said.

“We can’t have these discussions one town at a time without having a standard agreement across the board, and it would be imprudent to do so.”

 


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