MOUNT DESERT ISLAND— In January, Versant Power sent a letter to island customers informing them that the energy company had filed a request with the Maine Public Utilities Commission for a 25.2 percent increase, divided over two years, to its distribution rate. Customers would see a $4 per month increase that would start late this year and another $4 per month increase that would start one year later.
Versant Communications Manager Judy Long explained that the distribution rate increase, if approved, will go towards labor costs associated with the trimming of dead trees as well as for infrastructure to ensure safe and reliable service for all customers. The increase is expected to generate about $21.4 million in additional revenue, according to the letter.
The proposed rate hike raised concern for residents and island businesses that have witnessed economic hardship as a result of the pandemic.
Some local businesses agreed that a higher rate, if it could assure dependable electricity service, would benefit the community, especially given that more time is being spent indoors as a result of the pandemic.
MDI Biological Laboratory Director of Public Affairs Jerilyn Bowers said the company is following the discussion around the proposed rate increase.
“As a nonprofit institution, our expenses are very closely monitored,” she said.
Bowers said any unplanned increase can have a negative impact on operations, particularly during a difficult economic climate. Though she raised awareness for the Bar Harbor laboratory’s budget, she also understood the company’s reasons for the increase.
“However, as a biomedical research institution, we depend heavily upon the availability of reliable power and understand the need for periodic infrastructure improvements to ensure uninterrupted service,” she added.
Ingrid Cachmar, director of the Harbor House community center in Southwest Harbor, understood the rise in the rates.
“I am also a business owner, so on the business side, I can understand the expense for companies rises,” she said.
Cachmar agreed, from a consumer perspective, that the increase means less interruption of service.
While some businesses were understanding about the proposed increase, others were concerned.
Peter Sullivan, executive director of Birch Bay Retirement Village, agreed this proposed rate increase will impact the Bar Harbor healthcare facility’s budget.
“However, our biggest concerns are for the impact a large increase will have on our most vulnerable community members—older adults and those on fixed incomes—who may already be experiencing difficulties paying for basic necessities,” he said.
Mount Desert 365 Communications Manager Eloise Schultz voiced concern that the increase would pose an additional strain on struggling families and businesses in Maine during an already difficult time.
“We trust that the Public Utilities Commission will recognize this concern over an essential service, while also acknowledging that reliable electricity services require investment, she said.
“This issue speaks to the need for solutions that provide Mainers with access to affordable, dependable and renewable energy, regardless of their income or location,” Schultz continued.
MDI YMCA Director Tommy Parham, who facilitates afterschool programs and emergency daycare for employees, agreed it is unfortunate timing for Versant to plan a utility increase.
“We depend on people participating in programs, but because of the pandemic, it has created challenges. If we are looking at a utilities increase, that will just be another challenge,” he said.
The director of Walsh Properties, Eben Salvatore, hopes Versant’s increase is for good reason. He said that the most basic task needed for sustained distribution is keeping trees cleared by power lines. Salvatore said that expenses such as those for clearing trees should have been a practice that was employed a long time ago and shouldn’t be something people are paying for now. “This is the third transaction now since Bangor Hydro in a decade…what is it about this utility that makes it so desirable to buy and so desirable to sell?” he asked.
“The Maine Public Utilities Commission will look at our requests for this investment plan, as well as all rate requests in detail,” said Long. She explained that once presented, the commission has nine months to review the request and hold public hearings to approve part of the proposal, deny the proposal altogether or approve as proposed.
If approved, the rate increase would begin in the fall.
Correction: In an earlier version we misidentified Mount Desert 365.