GROTON -- Town officials earned a year's reprieve from the Electric Light Commission as GELD members voted to restore badly needed funds to the budget that they had cut in 2013.
At issue was a voluntary annual payment of $30,000 given to the town by Groton Electric Light Department in lieu of taxes which, as a nonprofit organization, GELD is not required to pay.
The Electric Light Commission and the Board of Selectmen had clashed over the issue when commissioners, angry at having run up legal and architectural fees when it tried to have its plans for a new garage facility on Station Avenue approved by the Conservation Commission, decided that to recoup some of their costs, they would cut their annual contribution to the town's finances from $30,000 to $15,000.
That matter was revisited in a recent meeting of the commission at which members were divided over restoring the $15,000.
This time, the issue was an overall increase in operating expenses due to federal efforts to close local coal-fired and nuclear power plants while at the same time preventing delivery of natural gas to Massachusetts.
Because of those efforts, supported by the state's delegation in Congress, the price of energy is on the rise, with providers being forced to pass on the cost to ratepayers.
Taking pride in providing one of the lowest rates among nonprofit power companies, commissioners told selectmen at a special meeting held on the morning of April 18 that they would soon be forced to increase rates to customers.
In building a case for the cut, commission member Kevin Lindemer cited statistics showing that among local nonprofit entities, GELD's voluntary contribution was "somewhat on the low side." On the other hand, the company made up for that by providing customers with the lowest prices and best service.
That said, Lindemer also noted that representing 1.4 percent of the local property tax rate, the $30,000 paid to the town was on the high side when compared with other nonprofits such as Lawrence Academy and Groton School.
Lindemer concluded by reminding selectmen that GELD's ratepayers also paid town property taxes and likened the voluntary payment to "double taxation."
In reply, Selectman Peter Cunningham told Lindemer that entities like Groton School made a voluntary annual payment of $100,000 in addition to other contributions both monetary and in allowing use by the town of some of its facilities.
Fellow Selectman Joshua Degen added that Groton School also contributed $7 million to help the town buy the Surrenden Farm property.
In any case, concluded Cunningham, spending comparisons should be between electric companies and not with schools. GELD pays a lower voluntary amount than any other comparable entity in the state, he said, including Ashburnham, which pays $66,400 annually even though it earns barely half what GELD does.
Lindemer, however, insisted that a re-set in GELD's annual payments was doing right by the ratepayers.
But in doing so, pressed Degen, GELD would be undermining the town's position in current efforts to renegotiate with nonprofits the amounts they pay on an annual basis.
The goal, said Town Manager Mark Haddad, should be to stabilize the payment given to the town by GELD so that numbers used in the municipal budget could be relied upon.
"That's all I'm asking for," said Haddad.
Right now, said Degen, the town had lost that stability in regard to GELD but an agreement by the Electric Light Department on an annual payment that could be relied upon would go a long way in helping the town's negotiations with other nonprofits to increase their contributions.
The focus of the commission is to serve the interests of the ratepayers not those of town government, stated commissioner Robert Hersh.
Hersh expressed anger that it seemed as if the town was so insistent that GELD pay the full $30,000 because of the fiscal hole it found itself in due to fiscal mismanagement among the schools that has left a $1.9 million deficit in 2015.
Still concerned that the Electric Light Department was being squeezed by the town on one hand and federal policies making energy more expensive on the other, Lindemer nevertheless moved that the full $30,000 voluntary payment to the town be restored but on condition that progress is made in the coming year to convince other nonprofits in town to increase their contributions.
The motion passed by a vote of 2-0 with Hersh abstaining.