February 1, 2018–Belmont Light: Happy customers, greener power

February 1, 2018–Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont residents approve of the performance of Belmont Light, even while they don’t quite understand how our local electric utility operates.  Those are two of the messages found in the 2017 “Customer Satisfaction Survey” recently released by the utility.

Town residents are happy with both the service they receive from Belmont Light and the rates they pay.  According to the Belmont Light study, “when compared to other utilities (gas, phone, water, and cable), [customers] have a more positive perception of the service they receive from Belmont Light than other utilities.”  Belmont Light’s customers provided the utility a net positive rating of 94% in 2017, a slight increase over the rating of 91.8% received in the last survey in 2015.  Out of the nine factors customers were asked about, “reliable service” ranked the highest, with a positive ranking of 94.4%.

An overwhelming majority of Belmont residents know that Belmont Light is publicly-owned. The Belmont Light study reported that eight out of ten of the town’s residents recognized Belmont Light as a “community owned municipal utility” rather than as a private utility such as National Grid.  Knowing the public status of the electric utility, however, does not translate into public knowledge about how Belmont Light operates.  Fewer than half of Belmont Light customers knew that the utility is governed by a board made up of the town’s Board of Selectmen.

Being municipally-owned carries with it a host of responsibilities, Belmont customers told Belmont Light.  One such responsibility involves the efforts that Belmont Light should take to pursue “community goals.”  The Belmont Light study reports that more than one-third of the company’s customers (34.5%) believe that “community goals are more important than industry best practices,” while fewer than one-quarter (23.4%) thought the opposite, that industry best practices are more important.

One of those community goals is achieving higher levels of renewable energy.  More than one half of Belmont Light customers reported that they would be willing to pay somewhat higher rates to garner additional renewable energy for Belmont Light, while less than one-third said that they were unwilling to pay more money for this reason. The remainder said they “didn’t know.”  According to GreatBlue Research, the company that did Belmont Light’s study, this willingness of Belmont residents to pay somewhat more for “greener” electricity is significantly higher than in other communities comparable to Belmont.

Belmont residents believe Belmont Light is doing a good job of controlling its rates.  One advantage of public power is that the rates of municipally-owned utilities tend to be lower than the rates of private utility companies.  And Belmont residents are satisfied with Belmont Light’s efforts to keep electric rates reasonable.  According to the study, “a slightly higher rate of customers agree with the perception that Belmont Light is ‘doing all that it can to keep customer prices low’ despite changing fuel prices and economic factors.”  In fact, a higher percentage of customers believed this to be true in 2017 than in the previous survey performed in 2015.

Belmont Light should be pleased with how favorably it is viewed by its customer base.  Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned.  First, Belmont residents expect Belmont Light to be involved in contributing to “community goals.”  Belmont Savings, as our local community bank, even though not publicly owned, serves as a great example of an institution that defines supporting the community as part of its mission.  Second, Belmont residents not only expect Belmont Light to take a leading role in responding to global climate change that can be attributed in large part to emissions from electricity, but residents are willing, within reason, to pay somewhat higher rates for the light department to pursue more renewable energy as part of that response.

Reliability remains, as it should be, at the heart of the service provided by any electric utility.  When people flip the switch, they want their lights to go on.  And reliability is one place where Belmont Light excels. Belmont Light’s own research, however, shows additional steps that the utility could and should be taking to serve the interests and expectations of Belmont’s customer base.

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December 23, 2015: Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is…

December 23, 2015 Belmont Citizen-Herald

Dear Santa, It’s been a bad year given the number of people shooting each other around the country. It’s painful even to recall all the deaths due to guns. And just think, we’ve had so many mass killings in this country that, at first, people didn’t even know if the recent San Bernardino shootings should be labelled “terrorism.”

Imagine that. Folks couldn’t tell whether killing 14 people with automatic weapons was terrorism, or was instead just your ordinary run-of-the-mill mass murders.

But, Santa, I’m not writing to ask you for reasonable gun controls. Banning people on no-fly lists from buying military style weapons seems to be too much to hope for.

Limiting magazine sizes, so mass murderers would at least have to stop to reload before they kill more of our kids doesn’t seem to be on the table either. We’ll have to leave those requests to the voting booth.

However, Santa, what I’m asking for will stop more deaths annually than all those mass murders combined. In fact, Santa, the majority of gun deaths each year include those by accident and suicide. When a person brings a gun into a home, it is 22 times more likely that that gun will be used to injure or kill a family member than an intruder.

Santa, a petition is now circulating at ProgressiveWatertown.org asking our state Attorney General to require all guns sold in Massachusetts to be sold with “smart triggers.” With a smart trigger, only the owner of a gun can actually fire that gun.

Not only would smart triggers prevent many suicides and most accidental gun deaths, they would also prevent police from having their guns taken from them and used against them on the streets. That’s one reason the head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police supports such technology.

Just between you and me, Santa, I really don’t “get” why this is a hard decision. We put smart caps on aspirin bottles to protect kids from accidental deaths and injury. We make cars that won’t start if a driver’s breath has too much alcohol. The use of password protections has become ingrained in our society. For heaven’s sake, I recently couldn’t download a song recommended to me by my daughter because I was using a lower case “a” rather than a capital “A” in the required security code. I confess, in my mind, it seems that it should be more difficult to pull the trigger on a gun than it is to download the most recent Carrie Underwood song on-line.

So, Santa, I’m not asking you to give Congress the gumption to stand up and say, “one Sandy Hook was one too many.” I’m not even asking you to get Congress out of the pocket of the NRA to make sure that military-style weapons remain in the military, and not on our streets and in our schools.

I haven’t lost my two front teeth, Santa, so I don’t need those for Christmas. My loss of hair is a hopeless cause, so I’ll also set that aside. But the continuing loss of life due to the lack of smart triggers is unconscionable.

All I want for Christmas, Santa, is for our Attorney General to use her authority to protect the public’s health and safety to stop a gun from firing when the hand holding that gun doesn’t belong to that gun.

Merry Christmas, Santa. Here’s hoping that nestled somewhere in that big bag of yours, you can find sufficient wisdom for our Massachusetts Attorney General to mandate smart triggers as one small step toward a more peaceful New Year.