HALLOWELL — Maine utility regulators ruled against bringing a regional natural gas company into a case involving a local water district, likely leaving ratepayers on the hook for a future rate increase.

The Hallowell Water District is asking for a 20 percent rate increase for most water users to pay for a new employee to help monitor the expansion of Summit Natural Gas in the city. However, ratepayers successfully gathered enough signatures to trigger a review of district finances from the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

Last month, the Office of the Maine Public Advocate, a ratepayer watchdog agency, suggested adding Summit to the district’s rate case because the company has been identified as the district’s main cost-driver. But the commission on Wednesday ruled against the idea, which was opposed by the natural gas utility and the water district’s attorney.

Matthew Kaply, an attorney for the commission, wrote in his decision that the commission’s ability to approve the rate increase didn’t hinge on Summit’s involvement. Kaply’s decision can be appealed, but William Black, Maine’s deputy public advocate, was out of the office on Thursday and when reached by cellphone, he said he hadn’t read or thought about appealing it yet.

At a case conference on Tuesday at the commission’s office in Hallowell, Black called Summit’s expansion into central Maine a “non-normal” intrusion into the region, citing a January story in the Kennebec Journal that said natural gas construction was stretching many utility districts.

At the Greater Augusta Utility District alone, employees responded to nearly 3,000 requests to mark existing lines in the ground in 2013, about five times more than the year before. Black said Summit should be joined to the district’s case “because the water district fully has the right to charge for services that it provides” and in this case, it’s providing a service to Summit by watching over installation of their pipeline.

However, the water district and Summit opposed Black’s suggestion, with William Harwood, the water district’s attorney, saying last month that there’s no precedent in Maine for assessing one utility’s rate increases to another utility.

Stacey Fitts, Summit’s regulatory manager, sent a letter to the commission earlier this month asking for Black’s motion to be denied, saying it would be “a significant change in law or policy with broad implications for Maine’s utilities.” On Thursday, Fitts said the utility agreed with the commission’s reasoning.

At the Tuesday hearing, Harwood said that Black was looking at Summit as a “fairy godmother or sugar daddy” to pay for the rate increase, which the district needs as quickly as possible to pay the new employee, who is already on the job. He added that making one utility reimburse another for road work may be shortsighted, since the water district will likely need to dig up some city street to maintain its lines.

“Surely you aren’t suggesting that the Summit utility should send a bill to Hallowell Water District whenever it has to go out and mark the gas lines because the water district is doing construction,” Harwood told Black then.

On Thursday, Harwood said the district is pleased with the ruling, saying the case is now “more traditional,” with the ratepayers, utility, public advocate and commission set to decide the right amount ratepayers will pay for the district’s increase.

“Is it what the utility proposed, is it more or is it less?” he said.

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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