By Mary Whitfill
The Patriot Ledger
HINGHAM — Both sides in a costly seven-year fight over the future of Hingham’s water system will spend the next 10 weeks trying to win over residents as they prepare for a town meeting showdown in April.
Selectmen will be asking voters to let them buy the town’s water system — including its pipes, wells and treatment plant — from Aquarion, a privately operated subsidiary of Eversource that fiercely opposes the move and has spent millions fighting it.
Hingham officials believe they can operate the water system better than Aquarion and are seeking to force Aquarion to sell it under a provision of the 1879 law that first privatized the town’s municipal water infrastructure.
Selectmen say that if the town owned the water system, Hingham would be able to cut costs for ratepayers and put residents’ interests before those of the shareholders that Aquarion now serves.
Aquarion, on the other hand, has accused the town of failing to properly vet the acquisition and says selectmen would be in over their heads if they tried to run a water system that serves 12,700 customers in Hingham, Hull and North Cohasset.
The two sides also disagree about the value of the water system. A financial analyst hired by the town estimates its value at $108 million, which would be borrowed and paid for by water rate revenue over a 30-year period, selectmen say. Aquarion says the price should be closer to $250 million when adding capital improvements and interest on debt.
“This isn’t like building a brand-new school,” John Walsh, Aquarion’s vice president of operations, said. “This is an asset — a treatment plant, pump stations, tanks, 11 wells, 200 miles of pipe — that needs continuous investment. The town is buying something that needs continuous investment every single year.”
Selectman Mary Power acknowledges that the system needs extensive improvements but says Aquarion is using “big, scary numbers” to misrepresent the financial details of the potential purchase.
“Under town ownership, ratepayers will save money,” she said. “Is it safe to say the system needs millions of dollars in improvements? Absolutely, but as a ratepayer I’m going to pay that under town ownership or Aquarion ownership.”
Hingham town meeting is scheduled for April 22, which leaves about 10 weeks for the town and Aquarion to argue their case to residents.
Aquarion representatives said Monday they plan to speak at town meeting if voters let them. Nonresidents may speak at Hingham town meeting only if a majority of residents at the meeting vote to allow it.
Aquarion has spent upwards of $2 million on marketing since the town first announced it was considering buying the water company, according to documents on file with the state Department of Public Utilities. The efforts have included targeted phone calls, newspaper advertisements, social media campaigns and 14 public forums hosted since August.
“I wish Aquarion spent as much money replacing the water mains as they do on public relations efforts,” Power said. “We will not spend a dime of taxpayer money on public advocacy. We just won’t do that.”
State campaign finance law prohibits the use of public money to support or oppose a question put to voters.
The issue has sparked the formation of two citizens groups: Keep Aquarion and Citizens for Hingham Water.
“The primary focus of our group is to educate the citizens. It’s hard to assess the risk for the town going forward, and I’m not sure this is being paid enough attention to,” Jim O’Hare, organizer of Keep Aquarion, said. “It’s an old system that needs work and my thought is that it’s better to have someone else own the problems.”
Citizens for Hingham Water registered with the town clerk as a ballot question committee in May, when it wasn’t clear whether the decision to buy the water company would be decided by a ballot vote.
Laura Burns, a former selectman who is the group’s chairwoman, said the committee has raised money for pro-purchase literature and has hosted 10 small forums in group members’ homes.
“It’s a very complicated and technical subject, so we invite people, ask them to bring their friends and present to them the results of Hingham’s study,” Burns said. “We’re planning a bigger public relations campaign going forward, and we’re raising funds exclusively from private Hingham citizens who would like to help fund the effort to get the word out. ... To us, this is a no-brainer.”
Power said selectmen and the advisory committee will have hearings open to the public, and that the town will sponsor forums for anyone interested in learning more. She said the board reached out to Hull officials Friday to try to schedule a meeting in Hull.
Aquarion officials said the company will also continue to host public forums as town meeting approaches.
Reach Mary Whitfill at firstname.lastname@example.org.