Energy & Environment

Beleaguered Barton Electric Dept. carries on with help from Vermont Public Power Supply Authority

A line worker in Barton. Photo courtesy of Vermont Public Power Supply Authority

Officials at Barton Electric Department — which serves more than 2,000 people in Barton Village and surrounding towns — have long understood they don’t have the capacity, on their own, to keep their customers’ lights on. 

Last spring, the village’s board of trustees recommended that Barton residents vote to sell the utility to Vermont Electric Cooperative, which was providing Barton Electric with some operational assistance at the time. 

In May, voters rejected the proposal, and Vermont Electric Cooperative told officials at Barton Electric that it would provide services for 90 more days. In response, the utility sent out a request for proposals, asking other utilities and organizations for help. 

The result, announced on Friday, is a contract between Barton Electric and Vermont Public Power Supply Authority, a nonprofit that assists 11 member municipal electric utilities. 

For now, the contract will meet Barton residents’ electric needs. Nate Sicard, chair of Barton Village’s board of trustees, the town’s governing body, said residents should expect rate hikes of up to 10% to 15%, which he attributes to the new contract. 

Under the new arrangement, which began in August, Vermont Public Power Supply Authority has been coordinating with other municipal utilities, including Hardwick Electric Department, Lyndonville Electric Department and Orleans Electric, which will provide around-the-clock coverage and emergency outage assistance. 

They’ve also contracted with a New York company called Northline Utilities, which is bringing line workers from around New England to a new Barton station, where a crew will cover daytime operations.

Barton Electric Department has hired two consultants — Patty Richards, who formerly led Washington Electric Cooperative, and Chris Recchia, former commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service — to guide them through the transition. Vermont Public Power Supply Authority has been managing the utility’s office staff since 2021.

‘Significant work’ ahead

Some tensions still exist between Barton Village’s board of trustees and Vermont Public Power Supply Authority. 

Sicard, who believes the residents of Barton would have been better served if they had voted to sell the utility to Vermont Electric Cooperative, said the nonprofit’s messaging to voters might have turned them against the proposed sale. He was also concerned about a conflict of interest, he said: Barton Village pays membership fees to the nonprofit, which would have lost that money had the sale gone through. 

Vermont Public Power Supply Authority generally supports local electric municipalities because community members have more power in decision making processes.

Julia Leopold, director of public affairs at the nonprofit, said the organization never told voters whether to vote “yes” or “no.”

“We just wanted to make sure that the Barton community knew what options were available to them, and also felt like they had a full understanding of what they would be giving up if they were to sell their utility,” she said.  

Barton is one of the most economically stressed areas of Orleans County and the northeastern part of the state, Sicard said, with a median household income of around $30,000. He expressed concerns about projected rate hikes.

Having the board of trustees run an electric company that covers seven municipalities outside of Barton Village “just hasn't worked for 20 years,” Sicard said. “We felt pretty comfortable that we needed to get out of this business and let the professionals do it.”

Vermont Public Power Supply Authority officials say they’re working in the best interest of the utility and its customers. 

“The trustees have said they’re going to take a step back and reevaluate and do a detailed analysis of what the best thing for the future is for Barton,” said Ken Nolan, general manager for  Vermont Public Power Supply Authority. “We're trying to come in now and just support them to make the space for that review to happen, so that when the voters have to deal with this again, they have full information. They have a third party that's helping them understand what the ramifications are.”

Sicard said the board expects to bring the issue to voters again in March. In a letter to the utility’s customers announcing the change on Friday, the board said it expects “significant work to be discussed regarding the future of the electric operations and finances” this fall. He encouraged customers to attend meetings of the board of trustees. 

Meanwhile, officials at Vermont Electric Cooperative said they would still consider placing a bid on the utility, and that they’re “open to any option as long as it serves our members.”

“We would never say never,” said Andrea Cohen, government affairs and member relations manager for Vermont Electric Cooperative. “We put in a proposal once. There's no animus. If at some point, they decide to maybe open up a process again, we would consider putting in a proposal. It's not off the table for sure.”

Asked whether residents are in a better position now than they would have been if the sale to Vermont Electric Cooperative had been approved, Nolan said it’s hard to say. 

“I think it's accurate to say there's likely to be some rate pressure that we'll have to deal with,” he said, “but I don't think it's going to be significant, based on what I'm seeing so far. That's part of what the trustees will have to evaluate when they look at the long term options.”

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: emma@vtdigger.org

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