Craftsbury School Board Bows to PUC Decision

by June Pichel Cook

CRAFTSBURY – Following an executive session at its April meeting, the Craftsbury School Board voted unanimously to pay Hardwick Electric Department (HED) $141,865.80 to settle a dispute of HED’s underbilling for electricity used between 2010 and 2019. The dispute had moved from the Department of Public Service to the Public Utility Commission (PUC). 

A hearing was held in January before the PUC. On March 31, PUC Hearing Officer Michael Tousley ruled that the school district should pay for the under-billed electricity, with payments to be made over nine years without interest. The Department of Public Service had reached the same decision almost a year earlier.

“We’re done and moving on,” Craftsbury School Board Chair Harry Miller said in a phone interview. “We saw our legal fees just going up and up. We don’t have the money to fight it. Our legal fees are way over the budget. We made a financial decision. Not much we can do. I sort of felt it’s the fox (PUC) watching the hen house and they don’t ever lose. It’s done.”

Miller said he had tried to represent Craftsbury taxpayers as best as he could.

The faulty meter was connected in 2010 when Craftsbury Academy was refurbished. The school was rewired from a Phase 1 to a Phase 3 system as part of a complete renovation of the building which included efficiency measures. The school won an efficiency award for the renovations.

HED inspected, approved, and powered up the system. In 2019, when the board sought information on installing a generator, HED realized the faulty metering and invoiced the school district for nine years of under-billing.

HED and the school district tried to amiably work out a solution. The school district then appealed to the Department of Public Service, which determined that the district was responsible for paying for the electricity used. The board hired a lawyer and appealed to the Public Utility Commission, which led to the PUC hearing in January with all parties presenting. The Department of Public Service supported HED’s being paid the under-billing.

Tousley concluded that both the wiring and inspection of the metering equipment were performed incorrectly by Craftsbury and Hardwick Electric, which resulted in the inaccurate measurement of electricity usage. He acknowledged that HED took no other steps to determine the new metering equipment’s accuracy or the billing charged to the school district.

Tousley stated in his Proposal for Decision: “However, I find that Hardwick Electric’s billing failure is an insufficient basis to justify Craftsbury not paying the underbilled amount because otherwise it would receive a discriminatory lower rate for the electricity it used.”

He stated that Craftsbury was aware of the drop in costs, but did not investigate the fact that its energy savings were nearly eight times greater than what had been projected by Efficiency Vermont. He concluded that Craftsbury was in a much better position than HED to investigate the cause of the “unpredicted energy savings windfall.”

Tousley rejected the school district’s assertion paying for the unbilled electricity would result in cutbacks at the school and impact the community.

The Proposal for Decision is not final, however, and parties had until Friday, April 23, to make comments. Although a request for oral argument was filed by Craftsbury’s lawyer, Pietro J. Lynn, the filing is moot in view of the school board’s action at its last meeting. HED has filed comments objecting to the PUC’s conclusion with regard to HED not having the right to disconnect service if Craftsbury School District fails to pay.

The Department of Public Service, which supported HED through the controversy, had no comments on Tousley’s Proposal for Decision.