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Northeast Kingdom community looking to sell electric department

BARTON, Vt. (WCAX) – The Village of Barton Board of Trustees is asking voters for permission to move ahead with selling the Barton Electric Department.

Trustees tell Channel 3 the electric department has become such a hassle, it’s taking away time from more important things. They plan to sell the utility to Vermont Electric Cooperative, which they’ve been contracting with for the past three years.

Trustee Justin ‘Tin’ Barton Caplin says the sale is the result of long-time mismanagement. “They had bond funds used in ways they weren’t intended for,” he explained. “Our infrastructure was in shambles.” Barton-Caplin says staffing shortages are also playing a role in the sale.

While it eliminates problems for the town, some are worried about what happens next. “You get money typically in a transaction, but you give up the ability to control local decisions,” said Ken Nolan, general manager of the Vermont Public Power Supply Authority.

Vermont has 14 municipally owned electric companies. VPPSA works with 11 to help them compete and operate. Nolan says Barton is a median-sized municipal company. Burlington is the largest and Jacksonville, which serves roughly 600 people, is the smallest.

Nolan says the type of sale Barton is moving toward could be considered unusual. In other situations, municipalities have seen rate hikes, placing added stress on businesses. “There is a fair number smaller than Barton, the viability is pretty good. Most utilities have the ability to operate,” Nolan explained. He also expressed concern that many discussions about the electric department’s future were held in executive sessions.

Trustee Chair Nathan Sicard says it was to protect the best interest of the town and VEC. He says it could be damaging to have certain information released publicly.

Trustees say there will be minimal changes to rates for the first two years. Barton will receive more than $4 million if the sale goes through. After paying back the utility’s debt, they’ll be left with $1 million to reinvest in the village.

“We’re trying to focus on a sustainable path for a really distressed community in the Northeast Kingdom,” Sicard says. “We’ve been trying to come up with a long-range plan and we don’t see the electric company as being part of that.”

Sicard says the profit will go toward things like cleaning up the High St. garage site, environmental clean-up of a diesel power plant, and the revitalization of the Memorial Building.

Trustees say if they don’t sell, they’ll continue to carry the electric department’s debt and struggle with staffing shortages. “As we explored all these options, the sale of the utility really became what we thought was the most viable option for a number of reasons,” Barton-Caplin says.

The village will be holding information meetings about the electric department’s future on April 16th and May 1st.

Voters will get to make the final decision on May 10th.

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https://www.wcax.com/2022/04/01/northeast-kingdom-community-looking-sell-electric-department/