Pennichuck, Pittsfield make case over water system deals

The town of Pittsfield made its case at a state Public Utilities Commission hearing last week to keep a subsidiary of Pennichuck Corporation from taking over three private water systems in other areas of the state for $750,000.

Pittsfield Aqueduct, a subsidiary of Merrimack-based Pennichuck Corp., seeks to add 755 customers of Central Water in Barnstead, 207 customers at Birch Hill in Conway and 83 at Sunrise Estates in Middleton. Pennichuck’s Steve Densberger said the move fits a corporate plan to buy struggling water utilities in the fast-growing Lakes Region and comes with the blessing of the Department of Environmental Services.

More than 100 homeowners in the Locke Lake Colony served by Central Water have signed a petition against the sale. But five of nine members of its board of directors took a secret vote late last month to sign a settlement agreement in favor of the deal.

Board member Judy Chase, a prime mover in the signature drive, found out about the decision at the Feb. 2 hearing. She wanted the PUC to admit her as the agent of the colony or as an 11th hour intervener. The commission recognized Jonathan Tripp instead, the paid administrator for the colony. Officials did let Chase give her views without any standing as a party, but kept her from cross-examining witnesses.

Engineer George Sansoucy, an expert for the town of Pittsfield, testified that users there would have to subsidize badly needed investments to the water systems that would join Pittsfield Aqueduct. Voters last year empowered the Pittsfield selectmen to use eminent domain against the local utility.

This still-awaited move would echo the city of Nashua’s fight to own the core of Pennichuck Corp., Pennichuck Water Works. The Nashua battle has played out for several years in state and federal courts and at the PUC.

But Densberger said his company is watching hundreds of small and poorly run water companies in the Lakes Region in operation, without certified operators.

“It’s a public health concern,” he said.

Both sides agreed Pittsfield ratepayers would see no price hike from the move until some future tariff review. Sansoucy said the expected economies of scale would justify dropping the price for Pittsfield customers. But until a tariff case begins, he said, they would pay more than their share.

Densberger promised to track the separate costs and revenues for all four utilities to let the state look at them every year.

He noted the company plans to invest $300,000 this year to upgrade the system in Pittsfield and between $100,000 and $200,000 in the other communities. The amount will depend on engineering studies after the sale.

Mark Naylor, head of the water utility arm of the PUC, said the transfer would rescue three firms unable to borrow enough money to maintain their infrastructure. The sale also would erase $67,000 in combined fines the state has delayed imposing on Birch Hill and Central for proven water quality violations, he said. – CHRIS DORNIN/GOLDEN DOME NEWS SERVICE

Categories: News