Council approves Bath budget, 'smart' electric meter rules

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BATH — The City Council approved a $13.4 million municipal budget for fiscal 2012 Wednesday.

Despite the possibility of a lawsuit, the council also enacted a 180-day moratorium on installation of wireless “smart” electric meters by Central Maine Power Co. without prior approval of residents. Those who want the devices would still be able to have them installed.

Next year’s spending plan is nearly $302,000 smaller than this year’s. City Manager Bill Giroux has said the decline in city expenditures is due primarily to budget reductions in the capital and sewer funds. But operating costs have increased and revenues have decreased, requiring a tax increase.

Municipal taxes will rise 1.64 percent next year, to $6.8 million.

A decrease in debt payments, concessions by employees on health insurance, postponed contracted salary raises for six months, and cost controls by department managers all offset the budget shortfall, Giroux said last month.

With school and estimated county expenses added into the mix, Bath’s total property tax rate could rise 3.71 percent in fiscal 2012.

The City Council voted on the budget in sections. It unanimously approved both the $8.8 million general fund and the nearly $900,000 capital fund. The panel supported the $1.8 million landfill fund 7-1, with Councilor Kyle Rogers opposed, and the $1.9 million sewer fund 6-2, with Rogers and Councilor Andrew Winglass opposed.

Electric meters

The council approved the amended “smart” meter moratorium 5-3, the same margin a previous version of the ordinance had last month. Councilors Sean Paulhus, Mari Eosco and Winglass voted in opposition.

In April, councilors unanimously approved a resolution urging CMP to refrain from installing the devices in the city for up to 180 days.

The moratorium was prompted after several CMP customers challenged the company’s meter conversions in complaints filed with the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The customers claim the devices are unsafe, which CMP denies, and that customers should be allowed to opt out of the program.

The PUC last month declined to intervene, other than ordering CMP to give customers the option of declining the new meters for a fee.

Councilor David Sinclair on Wednesday suggested a moratorium ordinance amendment that prohibited the installation of smart meters in Bath during the duration of the moratorium without the prior approval of a property owner or resident. But people who want the devices would have the option to have them installed during that moratorium by contacting CMP and requesting them, Sinclair explained.

“In the same way as it’s not appropriate for the state government to say everyone  must have such a device, it’s not great for us, as a City Council, to say no one in Bath may have such a device,” Sinclair said.

He added that the amendment “maximizes choice while at the same time ensuring that those who do not want such a meter will not be subjected to (the device).”

Larry Benoit, a consultant representing CMP, warned that the company could pursue court action if the city enacted the moratorium.

“Given the recent decisions by the PUC on a number of cases that have been pending, we believe that the opt-out program will address the vast majority of the concerns that were raised by the proposal for this (moratorium) ordinance,” he said.

He said the opt-out provision would allow customers who already have smart meters to request that they be replaced with either an old analog meter or a disabled smart meter without the ability to transmit. The same opt-out option would be available for customers with homes where the devices have not yet been installed, he said.

Benoit noted that the PUC has spent about seven months dealing with issues that have been raised, and that the issues of safety, cybersecurity and the appropriate nature of wireless technology have been dismissed.

“We respectfully urge that the council not enact the proposed ordinance and not put the company in a situation where it must legally assert its rights under state law,” Benoit said.

“CMP wants to have good solid relations with this community and all the communities in which it serves,” he added. “But it strongly believes that the regulation of electric utilities has been fully pre-empted by both federal and state law, and that local governments do not have authority to regulate in this particular area involving technology, and specifically smart meters, and the company would be compelled to assert its legal position in the courts if this ordinance were to be enacted.”

Signs

The council also unanimously approved an ordinance allowing signs that direct customers to downtown businesses. They will be allowed near the corners of Centre and Front streets, Front and Elm streets, Vine and Water streets and Elm and Water streets.

Councilors also voted 7-1, with Rogers opposed, for an ordinance that includes political signs in the definition of temporary signs. The signs must be no more than 16 square feet, may be erected no earlier than six weeks prior to an election, and must be removed one week after Election Day.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.