Northfield residents air concerns on water rate increases during DPU hearing

  • Selectboard member Heath Cummings speaks during the Department of Public Utilities’ public hearing at Pioneer Valley Regional School’s auditorium on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/ZACK DeLUCA

  • Northfield Selectboard Chair Alex Meisner encourages residents to speak their part during the Department of Public Utilities’ public hearing on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/ZACK DeLUCA

  • Department of Public Utilities Hearing Officer Kevin Crane, second from left, addresses attendees of the public hearing on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/ZACK DeLUCA

  • Dozens of residents sat scattered throughout the Pioneer Valley Regional School auditorium for the Department of Public Utilities’ public hearing regarding proposed water rate increases under the East Northfield Water Company on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/ZACK DeLUCA

Staff Writer
Published: 9/22/2019 9:31:16 PM

NORTHFIELD — During a public hearing with the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) on Wednesday, Pioneer Valley Regional School’s auditorium filled with townspeople who voiced their concerns about a potential 150 percent rate increase from the East Northfield Water Company.

DPU Hearing Officer Kevin Crane oversaw the hearing. He said the purpose of the hearing was for the DPU to hear comments from residents that may assist in its investigation of the need for a rate increase.

“This is an opportunity to comment on your position, not to question the water company or the DPU investigation,” Crane clarified.

These rate increases are pending approval from the DPU, which suspended the effective date of the increases until April 2020. The DPU regulates privately-owned water companies only, not city and town-owned water systems.

The East Northfield Water Company petitioned for an approximate 150 percent rate increase in May, proposed to cover the $900,000 in losses the company said it has incurred since rates were last set in 2012. If the rate hike is approved, customers could see a 73.6 percent increase, effective April 1, 2020; followed by a compounded 42.4 percent increase, effective April 1, 2021.

“Mismanagement has put my home at risk,” resident Katherine Harris said, as one of the first to speak. Many residents expressed concern that such a large rate increase would make it difficult to continue affording their homes, where some have lived for decades.

“It’s extremely unfair that one of the biggest problems facing this town is not the fault of something happening within our town,” Selectboard member Heath Cummings said. “The bills that people are being expected to pay, it’s not something that we should have to incur.”

Northfield Selectboard Chair Alex Meisner said the rising rates were brought to his attention a few months ago and, as a public official, he wondered what he could do to prevent it. Fellow Selectboard member Tracy Rogers said the board has started conversation around the issue.

“We have started conversations about ways to possibly merge the two water districts that exist in town,” she said. “We are in the very beginning stages of that, but there are things we are exploring.”

Northfield resident Robert Henry listed water rates, from the Massachusetts Water and Wastewater Rates Dashboard, for towns of similar sizes to Northfield. Henry highlighted that on average, the rates he listed were lower than Northfield’s.

“East Northfield Water Company’s current average rate is $682,” Henry said.

While the water company is owned by Northfield Mount Hermon School, the two are legally separate from one another, though some residents noted it’s difficult to understand the division.

“I don’t think East Northfield Water Company and NMH should be in the water business,” Meisner said. “The (water) company’s irresponsibility has fallen on residents and they should be ashamed of themselves.”

John Alden, president of the East Northfield Water Company, has previously said he believes the for-profit water company should not be owned by the school, but the company has been unable to find new owners.

After Wednesday’s public hearing, Alden said the water company wants to find a solution. Alden said he found the comparison of water rates from towns of similar size to Northfield interesting, and hopes that the company can work with government oversight for a solution.

The DPU is responsible for oversight of investor-owned electric power, natural gas and water companies in Massachusetts. Additionally, the DPU is charged with developing alternatives to traditional regulation, monitoring service quality and more.

The mission of the DPU, as stated on mass.gov, is “to ensure that utility consumers are provided with the most reliable service at the lowest possible cost … and ensuring that residential ratepayers’ rights are protected.”

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264.




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