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Hingham to pay over $100k for fighting water rate hikes

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  June 14, 2012 04:27 PM

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In addition to paying 10 percent more for water rates, Hingham will also have to pay over $100,000 in legal costs for a dispute with the town’s private water utility.

Earlier this year, the town went to court to fight a proposed rate hike, after Aquarion Water Co. sought an 18.7 percent increase.

A judge with the Department of Public Utilities eventually lowered the amount to 10 percent; however, the legal bills for the town went up.

Hingham officials said they had budgeted roughly the same amount that was spent fighting a 2009 rate hike by Aquarion. But this round was much more complex, and therefore more expensive.

“If you just compare it to the last rate case with a different attorney -- we paid $75,000 in that case, but then we didn’t have to go to court. [Here] there was some information we wanted, and Aquarion reused to give it and we had to go to court to force them to give it to us. And the price on that …it was $25,000 or $30,000,” said Hingham Selectman Bruce Rabuffo.

As a result, Hingham will pay approximately $113,000 in legal fees for the case.

Moreover, the town will pay $43,000 in legal fees for other Aquarion conflicts, namely those related to the $320,000 feasibility study on purchasing the water infrastructure from the private utility.

Those items, in addition to several legal cases through the Department of Conservation, Building Department, Board of Selectmen, and Zoning Board of Appeals were enough to surpass the $232,000 budgeted for legal expenses in fiscal 2012, which ends June 30.

To balance the budget, selectmen voted early this month to transfer $137,250 from Group Insurance to legal expenses.

Although the numbers are big, they simply reflect the cost of doing business as a town, Rabuffo said.

“We have a routine in place where we work with Advisory Committee and they have had a number of discussions about ways to do this differently to mitigate the legal expenses we’re incurring. But it’s the nature of the beast,” Rabuffo said.

If anything, Hingham is working to reduce its annual legal expenses, starting with a decrease in the hourly rate – to $225 from $275 – for the firm handling the town’s water dispute.

Still, Assistant Town Administrator Betty Foley said that legal expenses typically run in the $225,000-$230,000 range. “You never know where the legal money is going to fall. But our typical legal budget is that kind of money,” she said.

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