Town considers fees for buried lines (5/28/09)

Utilities say charges result in rate increases

May 28, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Underground utilities are out of sight and out of mind for most residents. However, they pose problems for Williston’s public works employees, who must contend with thickets of buried wires and pipes when they replace a culvert or maintain water lines.

The town hopes to recover the cost of working around what lies beneath by imposing fees on utility companies. A new ordinance establishing fees and rules for underground utilities will be the subject of a public hearing on Monday.

Town officials say the fees, which are expected to generate tens of thousands of dollars a year in revenue, defray the extra expense of dealing with the underground lines. Utility companies say the fees will be passed on to ratepayers.

“This will drive up costs. Ultimately someone has to pay, and that’s our customers,” said Harry Abendroth, manager of regulation, planning and engineering for Vermont Electric Cooperative, which serves 774 customers in Williston.

Dorothy Schnure, spokeswoman for Green Mountain Power, which supplies electricity to nearly 4,000 Williston residents and businesses, agreed that the fees result in higher bills. She and other utility company representatives note they already pay property taxes to the town on lines and other facilities.

Public Works Director Neil Boyden said Williston taxpayers foot the bill when a contractor charges extra or a town employee works more hours as a result of underground lines. The fees simply ensure utility companies cover those expenses.

“I think it’s the cost of doing business,” he said. “Hopefully, the fees will offset higher costs (for the town) in the future.”

Installing or repairing underground utility lines often requires digging up roads or sidewalks. Though utility companies must repair the damage, Boyden said “the patches are not ever as good as the original.”

The town currently charges a refundable deposit of $600 for each “disturbance,” or excavation of road or sidewalk, by utility companies. A permit is required, but the town doesn’t charge for it.

Under the proposed ordinance, utilities would pay $100 for a permit and another $100 for an inspection fee. The ordinance also imposes a $10-per-square-foot fee for excavating sidewalks and roads, and $1.75 per square foot for digging up green space. Boring horizontally underground, as is done for some utilities, would cost $1.75 per linear foot.

The fees would apply only to work done in the public rights of way along town highways. Rights of way vary, but typically include the paved surface and extend about 12 feet from each side of the road.

Utility work along state-controlled roads, which in Williston include U.S. 2 and Vermont 2A, would not be subject to the fees, Boyden said. Nor would the fees apply to lines buried along private roads.

Utility fees would help boost a municipal budget that has been hit by falling revenue from the sales tax and other sources. The town estimates that it will receive $25,000 from the new fees in the fiscal year starting July 1.

The proposed ordinance requires all new utility lines to be installed underground. Zoning rules have long required underground lines for new development, except where they are physically impossible, according to Ken Belliveau, Williston’s planning director.

The ordinance would extend the requirement to “major public improvement projects.” That would include new streets, although the rule could be waived by the Selectboard when it deems underground lines to be economically unfeasible.

Utility companies say underground lines are expensive. Abendroth said they can cost eight times more than ones strung on poles; Schnure pegged the premium at 10 times the price of aboveground lines. She noted that requiring lines to be buried benefits new customers but is paid for by everyone.

Schnure acknowledged that Green Mountain Power is concerned that fees for underground lines could become a trend in the 100 towns served by the company. Though Williston residents and businesses comprise a tiny fraction of GMP’s roughly 95,000 customers, she said if enough other towns start to impose such fees it could have a big effect on rates for everyone.

Representatives from GMP and Vermont Gas Systems have met with town officials in recent days to express concerns about the ordinance, Boyden said.

Utility companies say they are willing to pay their fair share but they also have to consider ratepayers.

“We try to be careful in everything we do to look closely at costs and keep them as low as possible,” Schnure said.

A public hearing on the utility line ordinance will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 1. It takes place at Williston Town Hall.