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Aquarion water-rate reduction reviewed while buyout talks continue

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  January 9, 2013 02:54 PM

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An rate reduction for Aquarion's water customers in Hingham, Hull, and Cohasset is under review while lawyers from the state attorney general's office get up to speed.

According to Hingham Town Officials, Aquarion attended a hearing with the Department of Public Utilities on Dec. 19 to affirm a rate reduction, which was put in place effective Nov. 1.

The rate reduction has affected the 7,835 customers in Hingham, the 4,580 customers in Hull, and the 325 customers in Cohasset.

Aquarion customers in Oxford and Millbury saw no change in their rates.

The reduction lowered the average water bill of $799 by $66 annually, or 8.2 percent, and was made possible by a refinancing of $30 million in debt for the Water Treatment Plant, built in 1995 in Hingham.

Though the reduction has already occurred, DPU officials said they wished to further investigate the company and their filing, but did not want to delay any benefit to ratepayers.

That review was set to occur in December, yet three attorneys from the Attorney General’s office asked to be brought up to speed on the issues surrounding Aquarion, and a judge delayed a decision until a later date.

“In the various states [Aquarion’s president] has worked, sometimes this happens,” said Bruce Rabuffo, a town selectman.

Comments are being accepted until Feb. 13 from interested parties, and the revised hearing is scheduled for March 22 with the Department of Public Utilities.

While Hingham waits for an overview, town officials are also continuing to talk with Aquarion over a potential purchase of their South Shore infrastructure.

According to Rabuffo, the town is still working through several issues, such as how would the three towns manage a newly acquired water system, how a buyout would affect future rate increases, and what happens with the town’s Capital Improvement Plan.

It is too early to put a potential warrant on April’s Town Meeting, Rabuffo said.

“The committee has decided they will not be ready, and schedule is not the driver. We informed Aquarion of that and they were appreciative of us doing that, and it continues to allow us to have a dialogue,” Rabuffo said.

Skipping this upcoming town meeting would not preclude the town from hosting a Special Town Meeting dedicated to this one item in the future, Rabuffo said. It is also a possibility that the town could have come to a decision for next year’s Town Meeting.

The overall question of whether the town will purchase the entity’s infrastructure is still up for debate.

“I have to give credit to Aquarion. They have been listening,” Rabuffo said.

The service issues have improved, as seen recently in the utility company's prompt handling of a water main break near Hingham High School.

Coupled with the proposed rate reduction and an increased coordination with capital projects, things are going well, Rabuffo said.

John Walsh, Aquarion Water Company Vice President of Operations for Massachusetts and New Hampshire, agreed that the dialogue between the town and his company is productive.

“It’s a matter of continuing to work with the town on a number of fronts,” he said.

Among them is planning for expanded infrastructure in the South Shore Industrial Park, a renewed focus on customer service – especially during main breaks, and working with the town on street repaving.

“What we’re trying to do is roads they plan to repave, we evaluate if the pipes need to be replaced and get in ahead of them, which cuts down their costs and ours as well,” Walsh said. “So we’re doing a project this year on East St. and we did one last year on Fairview and Leonard Streets. So that’s working well.”

Overall, the relationship has come a long way since a year ago when town officials first proposed a study regarding the cost of Aquarion’s system.

“We have a good working relationship with town officials that has been a good result from a number of meetings,” Walsh said.

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