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Maine Considers Protecting Public Safety Building Utilities

After a payment issue nearly shut off power to the Buckfield Fire Station, legislators are considering a ban on disconnecting utilities for public safety buildings without a 60-day warning first.

(TNS) — A legislative public hearing Tuesday focused on issues highlighted by an incident last June when a Central Maine Power technician showed up at Buckfield, Maine's fire station and told its chief he was there to disconnect the power because the electric bill hadn't been paid.

The town's interim town manager at the time, Bradley Plante of Poland, told legislators Tuesday that the chief convinced the technician to wait until 4 p.m., then headed to the town office to figure out what went wrong.

Plante said the utility got a check 10 days earlier but it apparently couldn't figure out which account it was for. A quick electronic payment ensured the Buckfield Fire-Rescue Department's power stayed on, he said.

Neal Goldberg of the Maine Municipal Association told members of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee that what happened in Buckfield wasn't unique.

After state Sen. Rick Bennett, an Oxford Republican, put in a bill to ban utilities from shutting off service to public safety facilities, "more examples of unwarranted or unsafe termination of electric utilities were revealed" around the state, Goldberg said. The proposal would require 60 days' notice before any cutoffs of public safety buildings for nonpayment.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission said the measure would put in place "reasonable safeguards to ensure that utility service to a public safety facility is not disconnected or terminated if this issue does arise in the future. We understand that having uninterrupted utility service to a public safety facility is essential for the health and safety of Maine citizens."

Urging passage of the measure, Goldberg said that "no provider should be able to unreasonably end delivery of an essential utility to public safety services. This is a matter of life or death."

"We fortunately avoided a major incident which would have endangered the health, welfare and safety of the residents of Buckfield," Plante said. "Let us do the right thing and pass some proactive legislation before we have unnecessary loss of life due to an administrative error."

Not everybody testified favorably about the idea.

David Parent, superintendent of the Sanford Water District, told lawmakers there are "many reasons for turning off water to a property other than nonpayment," including emergencies, dealing with waterline breaks and swapping meters.

"This bill would prohibit turning the water off without a prolonged process that would last months," he said, and doesn't contain any provisions to allow disconnection for necessary work.

Parent said if the Legislature "feels additional protection should be considered for public safety facilities" in particular, it should ask the Public Utilities Commission to add that provision through its rulemaking process instead of passing a new law that may have unintended consequences.

Bennett's focus was on CMP, a company he has frequently criticized.

"The fact that this episode happened at all" in Buckfield "is yet more sad testimony to the extraordinary ineptitude of our foreign-owned utility in managing our critical, local electricity infrastructure," he said.

"We cannot look away," Bennett told legislative colleagues.

"In a monopoly owned and run to benefit foreign governments and foreign shareholders, we must realize that the market's invisible hand inevitably becomes an invisible fist," he said. "That is why the reasonable steps called for in this bill are unhappily necessary to ensure power to vital town services does not get shut off."

Linda Ball, CMP's vice president for customer service, said the company didn't have a position on the bill but promised the utility "is fully committed to not disconnecting municipal accounts unless requested by our customer. With the cooperation of and communication with our customers, we believe customer accounts can be managed with the existing protections already in place."

Goldberg said that in most cases of threatened shutoffs, providers made a mistake.

"Putting aside the surprising number of clerical errors, providers displayed no concern or compassion for the potential for risk they were creating" by threatening to cut off utility service, he said. "Past experiences have shown that providers need to proceed more diligently before terminating service, and regrettably this legislation is needed to secure the stability of our public safety facilities."

He said even if the error is made by a town or government agency, "public safety facilities should still be afforded the additional time and consideration that this legislation requires of utility providers" before they take any action.

"These facilities are the bedrock to our communities and core to the operation of numerous essential government services," he said.

"This legislation will end the possibility that clerical or administrative errors, on the side of both customer and provider, will not create a risk to the residents of Maine," Goldberg said.

(c)2022 the Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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