April 26, 2013

Bill would mediate sewer district disputes

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- Efforts by Hallowell to sue the Greater Augusta Utility District about a sewer rate hike has prompted Rep. Sharon Treat to look for a better way to resolve future sewer rate disputes.

Treat, a Hallowell Democrat, is sponsoring L.D. 1342, which allows residents who want to challenge a sewer rate increase to petition the Maine Public Utilities Commission to call for an investigation.

Last month, a Kennebec County Superior Court judge ruled that a 35 percent rate increase in Hallowell was justified.

"Had L.D. 1342 been enacted already and the petition-for-review process in place, there would have been a speedier review at much less cost for ratepayers and taxpayers," Treat said Thursday during a public hearing on her bill.

She said both sides in the lawsuit spent a combined $200,000 and it took two years to resolve the issue. Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, is a co-sponsor of the legislation.

Treat said the bill will do nothing to help Hallowell now -- the city already has lost in court -- but that it will help resolve disputes in the future. She said it's particularly timely given the push toward consolidation of municipal services, which is likely to result in more conflicts among cities and towns in the future.

"Our intention is to provide a quicker, cheaper, more technically-versed appeal route," she said.

The Legislature's Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee plans to hold a work session Wednesday on the bill.

Several utilities districts from across the state testified in opposition to the measure, saying there was no reason for the state to interfere in local rate-setting processes.

Leonard Blanchette, general manager of the Brunswick Sewer District, called Treat's bill "a foot in the door" toward giving the state jurisdiction of sewer and sanitary districts.

Ken Knight, chairman of the Greater Augusta Utility District, called the bill flawed and said the state does not have the staff to conduct such reviews.

"Increasing staff levels to do this will require increased costs to either taxpayers or the sewer utilities themselves," he said.

The Maine Municipal Association testified in opposition as well, saying it will cost municipalities money to respond to a state inquiry.

Maine Public Advocate Richard Davies testified in favor of the bill, saying state regulators have the experience needed to conduct the reviews. The Maine Public Utilities Commission testified neither for nor against it but expressed concern about taking power away from locally elected or appointed sewer boards.

"The responsibility for the prudent operation of these entities is thus largely a matter of local control," said PUC legislative liaison Paulina McCarter Collins, according to written testimony.

Treat said she worked on the legislation with Hallowell attorney Susan Farnsworth, a former utilities district trustee, who said it only makes sense to have the same process for sewer and water appeals.

State law already calls for water rates to be appealed to the PUC.

"This is important because having a fast, fair and economical review process is essential for customer confidence, especially when a quasi-government agency or government entity has such independent authority to assess fees," Farnsworth said, according to written testimony.

Susan Cover -- 621-5643

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