The state Office of the Public Advocate said this week that it’s “dismayed” that the state Public Utilities Commission is allowing the Bingham Water District to move forward with plans to disconnect water service next week to the neighboring town of Moscow.

In a letter to the PUC on Tuesday, the public advocate’s office expressed concern “over the looming possibility that Moscow Water District customers may lose their water service as a result” of a disagreement between the two districts.

“There must be no disruption of service, nor should customers be left ‘holding the bag’ financially,” the letter said.

The public advocate’s office represents the interests of Maine utility consumers.

PUC records show that the Moscow district owes nearly $24,000 to the Bingham district, of which Moscow is a customer. The commission says the Moscow district has failed to comply with an order seeking an explanation for the unpaid bill, prompting the decision to move forward with cutting water service next Tuesday. Moscow also has ignored multiple disconnection warnings, the records show.

The Office of the Public Advocate noted in its letter that, “never in the history of PUC water regulation has an entire water district of customers faced such dangerous consequences, and for circumstances out of their control.”

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The relationship between the two districts could have been addressed by a formal interconnection agreement that “should have spelled out the rights and responsibilities of the two districts,” according to the letter.

Such an agreement would detail the responsibilities of each district, including the process for resolving disputes like this, but one does not currently exist, according to the Maine Rural Water Association, which oversees operations of the Bingham district.

 

Moscow district trustees previously said payments to Bingham stopped because of a recent rate increase by the Bingham district and the trustees were not given an opportunity to weigh in. But Maine Rural Water officials said Wednesday that a public meeting of the Bingham water trustees was held last August at which the rate increase was discussed.

“Maine Rural Water encouraged the districts to pursue a formalized interconnection agreement,” said Kirsten Hebert, executive director of Maine Rural Water. “During those discussions I recommended that the two boards get together to talk about establishing a formalized interconnection agreement because there is none.”

Instead, the Moscow district, comprising approximately 150 customers, is treated like any other ratepayer serviced by Bingham.

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If no agreement exists, the Office of the Public Advocate said that the two districts should be required to explain their positions on the matter. This is relevant, the letter said, in determining how much of the unpaid amount owed by Moscow is make-up billing versus normal charges.

The OPA also questioned in the letter whether Moscow’s district is still billing and collecting charges from its customers “while not remitting any funds” to Bingham. The letter requests that the PUC give the districts “a reasonable amount of time to resolve these issues” before taking “whatever actions are necessary.”

“But under no circumstance can the health and safety of any water customers be put in jeopardy by this dispute, nor should customers be financially harmed,” the letter said.

Moscow water trustee Scott Laweryson said Wednesday he was not able to comment on the matter as he had not read the letter from the OPA. Trustees for the Bingham district could not be reached for comment.

Susan Faloon, a spokesperson for the PUC, said in a statement Wednesday that, “The commission opened a case on March 23 to fully investigate the acts and practices of the Moscow Water District. Staff will investigate thoroughly and will consider the comments of the OPA as part of that investigation.”

Moscow is the second water district in Somerset County to have drawn the attention of investigators. The Anson-Madison Water District dismissed its staff in December and the former district superintendent was charged with theft. Sheriff’s officials allege the former superintendent illegally sold old district water mains to a scrap metal dealer on several occasions last year.

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