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Monday, October 31, 2011

Merrimack weighs say after a deal

By JAKE BERRY
Staff Writer

MERRIMACK - Without a voice on the company board, Merrimack officials fear they're drowning in Pennichuck waters.

Town leaders, who want a dedicated seat on the company's board of directors, were the only dissenters at last week's public hearing on Nashua's purchase of the private water company.

At the meeting, they shared fears that because the company's board would be appointed and overseen by the Nashua Board of Aldermen, it would look out for the Gate City's interests over those of Merrimack and other surrounding towns. But they found little support, and now that the $157 million deal stands on the verge of approval, town officials are left to consider their options.

Pennichuck officials are hopeful the state Public Utilities Commission, which held Tuesday's regulatory hearing, will rule on the matter by the end of November.

"Our big concern is our ability to have a seat at the table," said Finlay Rothhaus, chairman of the Merrimack Town Council, said Thursday.

"There's a concern, and I believe it's a legitimate concern, that if the preponderance of directors are from Nashua, they're going to look out for Nashua and not the other towns," he said, echoing his sentiments from Tuesday's hearing. "We're hopeful the (utilities commission) will hear what we're trying to say."

The roots of Merrimack's concerns lie on 400 acres of vacant industrial lots in the town's south end.

These properties, which make up a large portion of the town's industrial lands, fall within a zone franchised by Pennichuck, which means the company owns exclusive rights to the area's water service.

Town officials fear that when prospective companies consider moving to the area, the Pennichuck board and the Nashua aldermen, who hold the utility's borrowing authority, will favor Nashua properties over those in Merrimack.

"Which project are they going to go for? ... There's a competing interest now," said Merrimack Councilor Dan Dwyer, who also attended Tuesday's hearing. "They're not doing anything wrong, but it's self-interest in the city of Nashua. ... That's what they're there for."

Few other entities involved in the deal, however, share Merrimack's concerns.

The Merrimack Valley Regional Water District, which represents Nashua, Amherst, Litchfield and other towns - but not Merrimack, by the town's own decision - holds a seat on the Pennichuck board, which gives those communities a sufficient voice, according to Brian McCarthy, chairman of the Merrimack Valley board. McCarthy also serves as a Nashua alderman.

Merrimack opted not to take part in the water district when it formed in 2004, citing fears that board would be dominated by Nashua.

Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau, who has long championed the city purchase, argues that the 12-member Pennichuck board will look out for the interests of the company and the ratepayers, not those of a specific city or town.

"On the board, you're not representing the town you come from," she said Tuesday, in her testimony at the state PUC hearing. "You are there as a board of directors member who has fiduciary responsibility of what's best for the company."

If the Public Utilities Commission approves the acquisition, Merrimack has a number of options, town officials said.

They could appeal the commission's ruling, filing a motion for rehearing, according to attorney Edmund Boutin, of Londonderry, who represents Merrimack in the Pennichuck matter. "I'm not saying they're going to do that, but it's an option," Boutin said.

Or the town could request to join the Merrimack Valley water district, which holds a seat on the Pennichuck board.

"The district would be happy to talk to them," said McCarthy, chairman of the water district board.

Nevertheless, the town's hopes lie solely in the hands of the utility commissioners, according Dwyer, the Merrimack town councilor. And those hopes are quickly fading, he said.

"This decision has been made," Dwyer said. "My crystal ball sees the aldermen, they're either going to approve a bond that has Nashua ties or a bond that has Merrimack ties. You tell me who they're going to pick."

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.