Utilities watch

In November the five-member Executive Council voted 3-2 to confirm Michael Harrington, a Republican state representative from Barrington, as a member of the Public Utilities Commission.

Harrington will fill out the term of former PUC Commissioner Susan Geiger, who resigned in July. That term will end on June 30, 2005, when Harrington could be reappointed to the position for a new six-year term, replaced by a new person nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Executive Council, or remain in the position as a holdover until some action is taken.

He has resigned his position as a state representative to take the PUC position.

“Coming from a technical background, seeing as I’m an engineer, I look forward to working with the commission. I used to make the laws, but now I will have to implement them,” Harrington told Foster’s Daily Democrat after his confirmation.

According to Foster’s, Executive Councilor Ruth Griffin, one of the two votes against Harrington, said some of the legislation he was prime sponsor of while in the House swayed her to vote against him. Harrington was the sponsor of a bill two years ago that would have prohibited affirmative action at the University of New Hampshire. “I listened to the people who served with him on the (House Science, Technology & Energy Committee) who told me about the legislation he sponsored and his demeanor, which gave me doubt,” Griffin said.

Councilor Raymond Burton was the other “no” vote.

While in the Legislature Harrington served as a member of the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee, the committee that considers most public utilities legislation, for two terms. A member of the American Nuclear Society for over 20 years, he is a graduate of the University of Lowell, from which he received both a bachelor’s and master’s degree.

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At the same meeting at which it approved Harrington’s nomination, the Executive Council voted to table a request from the PUC to authorize a $4,702 salary increment to Public Utilities Commissioner Graham Morrison, retroactive to Oct. 13, 2004.

In discussions on the motion to table Councilor Peter Spaulding said he was inclined to vote against the request and Councilor Ruth Griffin said she understood that Commissioner Morrison had not been attending hearings. They asked a few questions of PUC Chairman Tom Getz, including whether Commissioner Morrison attended hearings.

Getz said Morrison attended over 90 percent of the hearings, but Griffin asked if Morrison was present when deliberations were held, and asked if there was a record of that attendance. Getz replied that deliberations are confidential and there is no record.

Burton said that citizens who attended hearings before the PUC had a right to expect that the commissioners be present so they can hear what citizens have to say and asked Getz to convey that to Commissioners Morrison and Harrington.

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From the titles of legislation being filed for the next legislative session, it appears that there will be a number of bills with an impact on utilities.

Some of these titles include one sponsored by Rep. John M. Gibson to repeal the local property tax exemption for wooden poles and conduits, a perennial issue. Another, sponsored by Rep. Neal M. Kurk, is relative to an electricity transmission utility property tax.

Others are relative to efficient renewable energy programs, sponsored by Rep. William J. Infantine, and extending the property tax exemption for wooden poles and conduits, though the proposed sponsor, Rep. Kurt J Roessner, lost his bid for re-election.

Most of the telecommunications titles filed so far resulted from legislative study committees.

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The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office has objected to a power-producing company’s agreement with one of Canada’s largest energy companies to sell hydroelectric dams on the Connecticut River.

USGen, which is in bankruptcy proceedings, claims that the sale to TransCanada Hydro Northeast of Calgary should be exempt from New Hampshire’s real estate transfer tax under bankruptcy law. But the state says that in this case, Coos, Cheshire, Sullivan and Grafton counties would likely collect the tax. It said the exemption claimed only applies when the bankrupt debtor is reorganizing and has a plan of reorganization confirmed by the bankruptcy court. USGen has not had a reorganization plan accepted by creditors and approved in bankruptcy court, according to the attorney general’s office.

TransCanada made the highest offer in the first round of bidding, reportedly $505 million, allowing the auction process to begin in federal bankruptcy court. The company’s so-called “stalking-horse” bid “sets the pace for the auction.”

A “stalking-horse” is chosen from a pool of bidders to open the bidding on a bankrupt company. This initial bid does not buy the company, but sets the bar for the rest of the bid process so that others can’t lowball the purchase price.

Under federal law, the sale must be authorized by the confirmed reorganization plan; USGen has not proposed a plan and may not do so until spring of 2005.

USGen, owner of the 567-megawatt hydroelectric system, went into bankruptcy proceedings last year. It is expected that the state of Vermont will continue to pursue the purchase of the dams, which represent about half of all the power needs in the state. The sale would cover 13 dams with 41 generating units.

Doug Patch, former chairman of the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, is with the Concord law firm of Orr and Reno.

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