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Unitil seeks increase in gas, electricity distribution rates

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FITCHBURG – Unitil Corp. has filed a plan with the state to raise distribution rates that would result in an average monthly electric bill increase of $4.88 and gas bill increase of $13.68, the company announced Tuesday.

Unitil, the gas and electricity distributor for Fitchburg, Lunenburg, Townsend, Ashby and a couple of dozen customers in Leominster and Shirley, filed the rate request with the state’s Department of Public Utilities.

The corporation filed a request for a gas rate increase of $3 million, or 8.3 percent, and an electric rate increase of $3.8 million, or 5.6 percent.

If approved, these rates will become effective no later than May 1, 2016. An average residential gas customer uses 74 therms a month, and would see a $13.68 increase on his monthly bill. An average residential electric customer uses 587 kilowatt hours, and would see a $4.88 increase on his bill.

“The purpose of these types of filings are to make sure we’re able to continue doing the infrastructure improvements that help our customers,” said Unitil Media Relations Director Alec O’Meara. “Outages are down by about 25 percent compared to the 2000s, and that’s because of the infrastructure improvements that we want to continue.”

The rate increases are also to pay higher operating costs of the business, O’Meara said, such as replacing utility poles, putting up animal guards and replacing gas pipes.

He clarified that the distribution rate is different than the supply rate, which changes every few months based on supply and demand of electricity and gas.

Lunenburg resident Cathy Clark, a longtime Unitil opponent, said the rate increase “was to be expected.”

“This isn’t anything new,” she said. “The supply rate went down recently, so the distribution rate typically goes up.”

Clark added that the corporation’s rationale for rate increases are “an aspect of smoke and mirrors.”

O’Meara said the last time the electric distribution rate increased was in 2013, and the last time the gas distribution rate increased was in 2011.

Distribution rates change every few years, he said, because “we need to make sure the rates reflect the costs of operating the business as closely as possible.”

Clark said the rates have been and still are unreasonably high, and urged Unitil customers to reach out to lawmakers to make them aware of the situation.

“What we need to concern ourselves with is getting our lawmakers to pass the Municipal Choice Bill, which would establish municipal lighting authorities,” she said. “That’s what is going to make the most difference for all of us.”