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Contract benefits utility more than Waterford

A rare event will occur in Waterford May 31. For the first time in nearly 20 years, residents will be able to vote in a referendum.

That vote could overturn a Representative Town Meeting decision that gave Eversource a 15-year exclusive contract to deliver natural gas to two municipal buildings and prohibits the town from using another heating source for the buildings during that period.

The petition drive to force the referendum was led by Democratic RTM members who opposed the measure when it was debated by the RTM in April. They argue the town never explored other, greener energy alternatives to heat the police department and public safety buildings and they also oppose the length of the exclusive contract.

Waterford residents have a lot of reasons to question their elected officials about these recent events and should turn out in force to make their voices heard in this referendum. Among the questions they should pose: are the majority of elected officials really acting in the best interest of all the town’s residents, and, are Waterford’s regulations governing how and when a referendum can be scheduled and executed too restrictive?

The march toward this referendum began after town officials started discussing the need to replace two aging heating oil tanks for an estimated cost of $166,000. Along came the utility company Eversource with a solution: give us an exclusive 25-year right to heat the municipal buildings with natural gas and we’ll ensure the gas lines to the buildings are installed.

The company is already installing service to the Waterford Woods development under construction on Willetts Avenue near the intersection with Bank Street and Post Road. Eversource would extend lines farther west down Post Road to service the municipal buildings.

In February, a requested 25-year exclusive agreement with the utility failed when absences among Republican RTM members gave Democrats a majority. The amended 15-year contract was adopted in a party-line vote by the RTM in early April. Republicans voted in favor and Democrats against, with an unaffiliated RTM member siding with the Democrats on the issue.

Nick Gauthier, a Democrat and RTM member who helped secure petition signatures to force the referendum said, “the costs to our taxpayers and our environment are far too great for far too long to rip up our infrastructure and lock ourselves into serving the profit interests of Eversource for the next 15 years.”

The party-line RTM vote and subsequent petition drive at first glance appear to be yet another example of Democrats and Republicans choosing a war of words instead of civil dialogue and compromise. In this case, however, the Republicans controlling Waterford’s elective offices appear to have been too quick to give too much to the utility company. Claims that Waterford stands to save more than $26,000 in energy costs over the 15 years of the contract are uncertain at best given the volatility of all types of energy costs. In addition, the risks climate change poses to the shoreline community are serious enough to explore energy alternatives that are greener than natural gas.

Equally as troubling are the restrictions Waterford puts on the traditions of New England-style democracy. The town’s charter allows for residents to petition to overturn an RTM vote at referendum, but the RTM can quash such an effort by labeling a vote an emergency action. Emergency legislation negates the 15-day waiting period between a vote and the effective date of the decision. In this case, an attempt to declare an emergency action thankfully failed in a 14-9 RTM vote.

In addition to these up-front restrictions, an RTM decision can be overturned at referendum only if the referendum garners the votes of more than 20 percent of the town’s registered voters. In this case, at least 2,833 voters must agree at the referendum to overturn the RTM decision.

We urge Waterford voters to make their voices heard in this important matter. They should tell their elected officials how they feel about granting Eversource this exclusive right. They should insist the town take seriously the threats of climate change. And, most important in the short run, they should turn out to vote in the May 31 referendum.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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