Power to the aldermen

Now I haven’t always been the biggest fan of the Rutland Board of Aldermen, but their recent decision to come to a formal agreement with Green Mountain Power over what has been promised and is expected during the buyout of CVPS is an astute move, and here’s why:

It provides a starting point for testimony to the Public Service Board, an unelected, three-person board with the power to completely deep-six Rutland’s future at a whim. For several years, CVPS has been ringing up national awards as a well-run public utility. The board’s response has been to insist CV has too many employees and so wasn’t scraping up every penny for ratepayers. Vermont had the lowest electrical prices in the region? The board responded by saying CV had too many employees, etc., etc.

Now the board gets to rule on the proposed merger of the state’s two biggest power companies, and it would be out of character for the board to not attempt to prove its worth by imposing restrictions on the deal.

Two areas are already under public discussion: Whether ratepayers ought to get a cash rebate for the PSB agreeing to higher rates during a time of corporate distress at CVPS some years ago and whether the board should force the new, larger GMP to divest its looming majority share in VELCO, the state’s transmission entity.

As a quick aside, remember when the Canadian bidders put $21 million into their bid to repay that debt to ratepayers and it was widely considered a bribe of some sort to sweeten a shady deal? And people think xenophobia is dead in Vermont …

Anyway, there’s nothing to prevent the Public Service Board from also attaching other conditions on the deal in the name of saving ratepayers money, a worthwhile goal but one that can easily be different than ensuring one of Rutland’s largest employers doesn’t wander off to, say, Colchester. The board could easily decide that ensuring Rutland gets a soft landing while losing the utility’s head office is a waste of ratepayers money; so no investing $200,000 in Rutland’s economic development; no guarantee of preserving jobs — and given its track record, the board seems more than likely to break out that old debate — and no solar city project. The latter, as yet a little vague, would see substantial investment in solar power in Rutland, including the possibility of using it as a research center for Sandia National Labs.

Look, the deal for the city isn’t the best possible … that would see CVPS buying out GMP and keeping the head office of the state’s largest utility here. But it’s the best deal we’re going to get under any potential sale, and the solar city project could be a game-changer for the city and the county going forward.

The fact that the aldermen and GMP have a signed, formal offer isn’t a guarantee that the PSB still won’t fiddle with things in a way that hurts Rutland, but it will make such an attempt clearer.

There’s a good argument to be made that keeping jobs from moving to Chittenden County is good for the state as a whole. It’s the only part of the state where too much growth is a problem, as opposed to too little growth elsewhere. GMP has made a good-faith offer to do its part to sustain Rutland through the transition, to the extent of signing an offer for the city. The aldermen did well to get that deal. Now it’s up to our state delegation to make sure the Public Service Board doesn’t get the last word on CVPS having too many employees in Rutland.

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