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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Protection for oil pre-buy customers slips through NH Senate with 11th-hour approval

CONCORD – Legislation to give better protection to customers who pre-buy their home heating oil moved forward Friday after an 11th-hour compromise over two unrelated pieces of legislation.

Half of the compromise at the end of the legislative session concerns a dispute over a 1950s-era agreement between New Hampshire and Massachusetts to compensate communities for flood control along the Merrimack and Connecticut rivers. ...

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CONCORD – Legislation to give better protection to customers who pre-buy their home heating oil moved forward Friday after an 11th-hour compromise over two unrelated pieces of legislation.

Half of the compromise at the end of the legislative session concerns a dispute over a 1950s-era agreement between New Hampshire and Massachusetts to compensate communities for flood control along the Merrimack and Connecticut rivers.

The other half provided protection for oil customers after Fred Fuller Oil Co. encountered delivery problems last winter, leaving homeowners with empty tanks during some of the coldest nights of the year.

State Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough, credits legislative leaders from both parties for bringing the agreement to pass.

“I think we all recognized that both of these bills were too important to fail,” said Leishman, who met privately on the issue with Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, on Friday morning.

“I think both sides can be happy with what they’ve gotten out of this.”

The goal of the oil contracts part of the bill would give state prosecutors more power to go after contractors that fail to deliver product after having received money from consumers.

It requires registration and reporting by the dealers and sets minimum inventory levels.

The failure to deliver home heating fuel with a prepaid contract would also become a violation of the state’s Consumer Protection Act. This could permit the customer to seek up to triple damages in court.

Rep. Donna Schalchman, D-Exeter, said legislative leaders from both parties have been working for six years to come to some agreement on reforming oil contracts.

The controversy re-emerged last winter when Fred Fuller customers had difficulty getting oil after the firm reported having problems with its phone system.

Gov. Maggie Hassan’s office intervened, and convinced the firm to pay for the state setting up a toll-free hotline that consumers could use to get oil product.

State prosecutors said one problem Fuller had was it had lost a significant amount of pre-buy business for next winter because of delivery problems the firm had incurred in the recent past.

The other half of the bill settles a dispute over how to divvy up money between towns along the Merrimack and Connecticut rivers.

In January, state prosecutors convinced the state of Massachusetts to make a $1.1 million payment to offset some of the costs.

Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford, said state law obligates New Hampshire to reimburse the towns, and that it’s wrong for the state to keep any of the money coming from Massachusetts.

“We are essentially holding our communities hostage,” Sanborn said. “The state is not complying with the law and not keeping its word.”

House leaders had offered to give the communities about half the money the state received from Massachusetts officials – $542,672.

Some of that money will go to four towns along with Connecticut River watershed, while the rest will go to 18 towns along the Merrimack River.

Senate Republican leaders agreed Friday to accept less for the flood control project than they had insisted upon and signed the bill.

Talks between House and Senate negotiators had broken off Thursday after Senate leaders resisted a House attempt to settle the matter by giving the communities half of the money the state owes them.

The House and Senate will take a final vote on the agreement on Wednesday.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).