By Katina Caraganis
FITCHBURG -- Residents living in Unitil's coverage area got their message across loud and clear Monday night, saying they are, without a doubt, against a proposed rate increase by the utility.
The rate increase was filed by the utility over the summer, and the Department of Public Utility's public hearing Monday night at Memorial Middle School was the first of two hearings required to be conducted.
The proposed hike is equivalent to a 0.3 percent increase, or 40 cents a month at 600 kilowatt hours. Customers from Ashby, Fitchburg, Lunenburg and Townsend were able to present their questions and concerns at the meeting.
Hampton, N.H.-based Unitil is looking to increase revenue by $6.7 million and create a $2.8 million storm-reserve fund. From the total increase of $9.5 million, $5.3 million would go toward costs incurred by Hurricane Irene, the Halloween snowstorm in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy last year, according to Unitil spokesman Alec O'Meara.
The storm-reserve fund would be established in January 2015 with a $6.3 million cap.
O'Meara also said the increase is expected to be offset by expiring transition surcharges. He said there will be a $12.6 million decrease due to the transition rates ending, falling into the same time frame as the establishment of the storm reserve.
Jacquelyn Wehtje, of Fitchburg, said Unitil should not be guaranteed a profit every year, and that it should be protecting the interests of its customers.
"The DPU's job is to serve the interest of businesses and families, not the interest of the utilities and, in many times, their out-of-state investors," she said. "Please don't forget who you are expected to serve here."
Kelly Johnson, a single mother from Fitchburg, said that in doing her research, she noticed Unitil had a $16.3 million profit in 2011. She said some of that should be returned to the ratepayers.
"As a single mother, I'm very conscious of my utility rate," she said.
Lunenburg resident Cathy Clark, who has run a campaign against Unitil, spoke during the hearing, saying that as a real-estate agent, she has had issues selling properties in town because of Unitil.
"It's simply shameless," she said. "How do you let this go? How are people to believe that the money will be appropriated as promised? Take into consideration the years of neglect to the infrastructure. We, the ratepayers, put our trust in you. Please don't let us down."
State Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, state Reps. Stephen DiNatale and Jennifer Benson, Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong, some Fitchburg city councilors and some Lunenburg selectmen were also on hand Monday night.
All were vocal about the rate increase, saying their constituents pay the highest electricity rate in the state, and they're tired of it.
"This is not fair to my constituents, to ask for an increase just two years after the last one," said Flanagan, a Leominster Democrat. "The unemployment rate is high here, and my constituents can't continue to pay the highest rates in the state."
Benson, a Lunenburg Democrat, agreed, saying ratepayers were once promised a rate decrease, and the utility has yet to give that.
"It is imperative that the ratepayers see a decrease," she said. "We have a business base here that is a big user of electricity. This public utility has negatively impacted that base. We are in desperate need of the relief."
DiNatale urged the DPU to turn down the proposed rate increase, saying the agency is the last line of defense when it comes to these things and needs to take a stand.
"I call on you guys to step up," the Fitchburg Democrat said. "Here comes another complex plan with an overall result that will be another increase. This is a sign of relentless arrogance. They've had their feet on the neck of the ratepayers for a long time, and it needs to stop. The DPU needs to hold their feet to the fire."
Wong said many of the things Unitil is looking to do, including starting a stabilization fund for future storms, is something the city has wanted to do for years, and has managed to create that and more by looking for money elsewhere in the budget and tightening belts.
It is that, she said, that Unitil needs to do, too.
"Unitil has failed to make innovative and forward-thinking decisions," she said.
Follow Katina Caraganis on Tout and Twitter @kcaraganis.