AUGUSTA — City councilors voted unanimously to spend up to $40,000 to hire a consultant to help pick which of two natural gas proposals would benefit both the city and the most residents.

The city wants to leverage its buying power to help make natural gas available to as many homes and businesses in the city as possible. City officials also said they don’t have the expertise in natural gas to be able to decide which company to choose to help make that happen.

“The initiation of gas service to the city of Augusta is an unprecedented opportunity in this community that could be a game-changer in terms of economic development in this city and region,” Mayor William Stokes said. “These are very difficult evaluations to make and we need to get this right. The issue of hiring a consultant, to me, is a no-brainer. Deciding something of this magnitude and potential consequences without expertise and advice, to me, is foolhardy.”

The city spends more than $1 million a year on oil to heat city and school buildings, according to Ralph St. Pierre, finance manager and assistant city manager.

Officials hope the arrival of natural gas, which now is much cheaper than heating oil, will help lower those heating costs.

The consultant will analyze two proposals, from Summit Natural Gas of Maine and Maine Natural Gas, and make a recommendation to the city.

Last month the city received proposals from those two companies, which are competing to bring natural gas to the area, in response to a request for proposals. The city asked the companies for proposals on supplying gas via pipeline in two scenarios — one just to city, school, county and court facilities in Augusta; the other a regional proposal including Augusta, Hallowell and Gardiner.

Councilor David Rollins suggested the cost of the consultant’s analysis could be paid by the two gas companies. He also suggested asking the other entities involved in the request for proposals — the courts, Kennebec County, Hallowell and Gardiner — to contribute funds to help pay for the consultant’s work.

“I do support the idea there’s a need for an analysis to be done beyond one by the people here in this room,” Rollins said Thursday in council chambers. “I’m not sure I like the idea of the taxpayers of Augusta paying for it. I’m not satisfied that’s the best way to do it.”

Stokes responded that the city of Augusta wants a consultant that will look at what is best for Augusta, not the other entities involved.

City Manager William Bridgeo had said previously the consultant work probably would go to Energy Market Decisions Inc. of Hopkinton, Mass.

Energy Market Decisions, according to an overview provided by the company, was incorporated in 1992 and has a focus on providing strategic and operational advice about natural gas, oil and propane markets to support the fuel requirements of industry and institutions.

The cost, up to $40,000, would come from the city’s unassigned fund balance account, which generally consists of money unspent in previous years.

Councilors noted that choosing which of the two proposals to accept isn’t as simple as looking at which has the cheaper rate.

Councilor Michael Bryon said switching to natural gas has the potential to save households about $1,500 a year in heating costs, so the best proposal for the city to choose could be the one that provides gas to the most residents, not just the one that provides the city with the cheapest rate to provide gas to city and school facilities.

“If that $1,500 per household of disposable income will be released, we can image where those millions and millions of dollars saved over the years will be spent,” Bryon said, suggesting as residents save money, they’ll spend it in the regional economy. “There are more benefits to this than just cheap gas. Cheaper isn’t always better.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]

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