Norwich voters to weigh NPU natural gas expansion project

Norwich - Amid the furor surrounding the state governor's race and other contentious races, and the crowded Norwich ballot, voters will be asked not to overlook the referendum question that seeks support for a third and possibly final expansion of Norwich Public Utilities' natural gas system.

The question asks voters to approve bonding $9.5 million to extend natural gas lines within Norwich, to extend lines down Route 12 to the former Norwich Hospital property if a development occurs there and to upgrade gas meter reading equipment and make other capital improvements to the line.

In 2010 and 2012, Norwich voters approved similar gas line expansion referendum questions, each asking for $5 million in bonding for natural gas expansions. Those projects allowed NPU to run 16 miles of new natural gas lines, bringing in more than 1,200 new customers to the system.

As with those bonds, Norwich taxpayers and existing gas ratepayers would not pay any of the new expansion costs. NPU General Manager John Bilda said the expansion only would be done in areas where enough residents and businesses agree to hook into the new system to pay for it. The line to Preston Riverwalk, the former Norwich Hospital property, would be done only if business development is ready to use the line.

If the referendum is approved, Bilda estimates the new expansion would be enough to "finish the job" by extending gas lines to all areas of the city that make sense at this point.

The City Council approved the referendum bond question this summer. The $9.5 million project includes $5.5 million dedicated to continuing expanding gas lines in Norwich, $2 million to extend the line to Norwich Hospital and another $2 million to pay for automated metering upgrades.

State law restricts what municipalities can say about referendum bond proposals, as they are not allowed to use city funds to promote a certain position on a bond question. NPU did print a two-page explanatory text available at the city clerk's office to describe the project and answer anticipated questions.

Bilda said that, unlike in the past referendum bonds, NPU did not hold informational meetings to explain the bond request to voters, relying on the successes of the previous bonds as evidence that the proposal works to Norwich's advantage.

Not only would taxpayers and existing ratepayers not have to pay for the project, but the expansion would bring added revenue to the city's coffers. NPU turns over 10 percent of its gross revenue in electric, gas and water services to the city to offset taxes each year.

"We hope the voters extend that trust one more time so we can essentially finish the job," Bilda said.

NPU spokesman Chris Riley said as part of the communications and outreach efforts on the expansions funded by the previous bonds, NPU held 48 informational meetings between August 2013 and September 2014 to explain the natural gas expansion efforts to customers. The utility also handled more than 7,700 phone calls from customers and ran 1,400 radio ads as part of the Energize Norwich campaign.

While not specifically aimed at the new referendum, the outreach effort publicized the gas expansion project to make people aware of it, Riley said.

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"Shall the $9,500,000 appropriation and general obligation bond issuance authorization for the extension of natural gas lines in the City's service franchise area to expand the geographic area and customer base served by natural gas, automated meter reading equipment and technology, and other natural gas system improvements, be approved?"


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