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Public hearing held on electric rate increase in Ashland

May 20, 2021
ASHLAND — The Ashland selectmen met on May 17 in the conference room in the

Utility Building, their first in person meeting in several months. Much of the meeting was devoted to the Electric Department. They also approved upgrading the phone and Internet service in the Town Office, P-cards, a purchasing policy, a grant application for the Whipple House roof, a food truck and the Baptist Church at the ballpark, and dealt with other issues.

The selectmen opened their meeting with a public hearing on the rate increase of one and a half cents per kilowatt/hour that they had approved at their April 19 meeting. The new rates will go into effect on June 1. It was estimated that the increase will raise another $255,000 per year. The reasons given were the low salaries that made hiring and retaining employees difficult, and the need to upgrade the system. Linesmen in Ashland department are paid significantly less than in other utilities in the area. One linesman recently left for a higher paying job at another utility. The only people applying for the vacant linesman job in Ashland have no training in the work. The department is down to two linesmen, one of them now deployed for military service. The electric system was described as being outdated and to some degree worn out. A recent survey of the utility poles found that 15 perfent of the poles were in "failure status." The equipment, such as the substation, needs to be upgraded. No objections were made

to the rate increases.

Engineer David Ofcarcki of Eaton Corporation made a lengthy presentation on their automatic metering system that would replace the current electric meters, which had been read by Department employees looking at each of the 1,633 meters and writing down the numbers in a notebook, which were then entered manually into the billing system. The department has recently begun using handheld devices which can be

downloaded the readings directly into the department computers. The Eaton proposal would replace the present meters with new meters that would automatically report the readings to the computer system. The system would automatically report outages that now have to wait for the customers to call them in. The data gathered by the new system could help in planning for the future of the system. The growing impact of electric vehicles and solar power installations were also discussed. The selectmen and Public Works Director Craig Moore, who is now in charge of the Electric Department in the absence of a Superintendent, did ask some questions, but no action was taken by the board.

Electric billing has been a problem for some time, with the billing falling behind the payments so that the bills often failed to include prior payments, much to the consternation of customers. In answer to those complaints, Moore explained that, with the hiring of a new utility clerk and the use of the handheld readers, the office staff

has almost caught up with the billing. He felt that after this month, the electric bills should be back on schedule.

Interim Town Manager Fran Newton reported on her contacts with First Light, that provides Internet and phone service to the Town Hall, about problems with that service in the Town office. The Police Department has also been having difficulties with Zoom meetings and remote court hearings. First Light offered to upgrade the service and

provide new phones at a slightly lower cost if the Town signed a 36-month contract. After some discussion, in which Chairman Eli Badger pointed out that other departments have similar needs which should be explored, the Selectmen agreed by consensus to upgrade the Town office phones and internet service.

At their May 3 meeting, the selectmen were given a presentation on using purchasing cards (P-cards) to replace the debit and credit cards now used by Town departments, but they took no action at that time. Newton raised the issue again, saying that she could see no downside to the innovation. Without much further discussion, the selectmen agreed, voting 4 to 1 to use P-cards in place of credit and debit cards.

At their April 19 and May 3 meetings, the selectmen had discussed changes to the Purchase Order policy and a draft prepared by Finance Officer Katherine Davis of a Town Purchasing Policy that would replace that policy. They felt that incoming Town Manager Fred Welch should have a chance to review the new policy before they voted on it. At this meeting, it was reported that Welch had reviewed the policy and his suggestions had been incorporated in the latest version of the policy. The selectmen voted unanimously to approve the revised Purchasing Policy.

David Ruell of the Ashland Historical Society updated the selectmen on the project to re-shingle part of the Whipple House Museum roof. Thanks to a Town meeting vote and a generous gift, the Society has at least $4,000 for the work, but estimates are running in the $14,000 to $15,000 range. The Society is therefore applying for a $10,000 state

Moose Plate Grant. The selectmen all voted to approve the grant application for the roof work on the Town owned museum building and also agreed to provide a letter of support. If the Moose Plate grant application does not provide the funds needed, the Society is looking at another matching grant opportunity later in the year.

Under the American Rescue Plan, the Town could receive something like $200,000 in Federal grants. It is somewhat unclear at this time how the money could be spent, but the department heads have been asked to think about the possibilities. The Lakes Region Planning Commission has also inquired about shovel ready projects in Ashland.

Parks & Recreation Director Ann Barney, who also serves as a Selectman, presented requests for the use of the ballpark and the beach. After some discussion, the selectmen approved, with Barney abstaining, a food truck selling at the ballpark during Sunday softball games, and the Community Church using the ballpark for Sunday services and lunches during the summer, and the beach for a Baptism service in June, all provided that proofs of insurance were provided.

A previous decision to buy new locks for the four Town Hall doors was put on hold when it was found that the estimate had been misread, and that the actual cost would be substantially higher than calculated. Other estimates for the locks will be sought. The

selectmen reviewed estimates for two crosswalk streetlights to be installed as part of the Main Street sidewalk project, but will wait for another estimate before making a decision. The bricks in the sidewalk in front of the Common Man Restaurant were purchased and installed by Alex Ray, the restaurant owner. The bricks will be removed for the new sidewalk, so Ray has asked that they be returned to him. The cost of removing them by hand would be time consuming and expensive, but removing them with machinery would damage or break a large number of the bricks. So, the selectmen decided to ask Ray if he would be satisfied with receiving an equivalent number of bricks. Anminspector from Primex, the Town's insurer, was to make a safety inspection of all Town buildings the following Thursday. Selectman Robert LeTourneau felt that there should be a complaint form that people could fill out to draw attention to problems. Newton explained that a previous board had done away with the complaint form because it was misused. She said that anyone with a problem could write a letter instead and that they would receive a response.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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