Municipal Light Board to analyze lower Comcast contribution

Tony Contrino, General Manager of Westfield Gas+Electric and Whip City Fiber. (WNG file photo)

WESTFIELD- The Municipal Light Board (MLB) covered a range of topics Wednesday night in its first meeting the day after the vote to fill the vacant Ward 3 seat with Dawn Renaudette.

The meeting began with a public participation section during which City Councilor Brent B. Bean II  asked for an update on the In Lieu of Tax (ILOT) payments. Bean also asked about the possibility of the meetings being recorded in the future, an idea that has been frequently discussed in past meetings. Both topics were later addressed.

Westfield Gas and Electric General Manager Tony Contrino discussed the price projections for the coming fiscal year, which he noted were not dramatically different than they had been. Such projections assume that the weather will be as expected throughout the year and the average energy consumption remains normal.

“The electric costs are projected to be slightly lower than our projections for fiscal year 2019. Gas is expected to be just slightly higher,” said Contrino.

He added that he believes WG&E provides a great service with the rates they have and support the community. Contrino noted that people do like to look at rates as a metric of a good utility company, but that there is more to it than the rates, but also the services they provide.

The MLB was asked to discuss the In Lieu of Tax payments because the city’s reimbursement from Comcast decreased due to what Contrino cited as lower subscription rates from customers in Westfield.

“There’s no way to quantify the impact from Whip City Fiber to the city,” said Commissioner Thomas Flaherty, “Comcast is trying to compete against Whip City Fiber’s product. You’re seeing their cost go down to their subscribers to try to compete with Whip City Fiber.”

Flaherty said Mayor Brian P. Sullivan requested the review because he wasn’t sure where the city was losing money. When the city had done an internal audit, they discovered that a portion of the money that had not been coming in was because they had not received their normal fee from Comcast, which he described as a “pass-through tax.”

Dawn Renaudette, the newest Municipal Light Board representative for Ward 3. (Photo by Peter Currier)

It was approximated that the City was receiving $600,000 per year in fiscal years 2017 and 2018. In 2019, it dropped to $472,000, a loss of $118,000. It was assumed that much of that drop came from Comcast losing business to Whip City Fiber, although they did acknowledge that it could have been Comcast losing business to other companies that provide service within the city.

Commissioner Ray Rivera pointed out that the fee is not really taken out of Comcast’s pocket. He noted that if a Comcast customer were to look at their bill, they would see an item which the customers pays  into that fund. Commission Chairman Robert Sacco said he thought that the money they receive from Comcast is typically used for the public service TV station in the city. He added that he wants to analyze the loss and see if it is because customers are switching to Whip City Fiber.

“Do we know what the loss is attributable to,” said Sacco, “We’re all assuming this is from customers that moved from Comcast to Whip City.”

Rivera said he wanted to calculate if there are any businesses that come to or stay in Westfield because of the city’s utilities and low rates, in addition to whip City Fiber. His argument is that if there are enough businesses coming to Westfield for Whip City Fiber and paying taxes in the city as a result, in theory, this would mitigate any losses in payments from Comcast due to the extra taxpayers. New Commissioner Dawn Renaudette suggested that a review of past payments should be done to see what kind of correlation there is between Whip City Fiber coverage and the Comcast fee.

The board then discussed the possibility and logistics of having the monthly meetings recorded via video. Flaherty said that it is possible for them to do because they already have the necessary video equipment in-house. Flaherty suggested to WG&E IT Manager John Leary that they do a “dry run” of a taped meeting in September by recording parts of that meeting and seeing how it works and what kind of interest there would be. Sacco suggested having Leary come in during an upcoming meeting and having him do a presentation on it a half-hour before the meeting.

The meeting ended with an update on WG&E’s involvement in the upcoming Westfield 350th birthday parade on May 19. Contrino announced that the company would have people marching in the parade, including himself, with one or two trucks alongside them. He extended the invitation to the entire board for them to march as well. He added that they would be marching alongside the Westfield Starfires Futures Collegiate Baseball Team. Custom baseball shirts were created for both the Starfires and the WG&E marchers to wear.  The two groups will be staging at the Horace Mann Center at Westfield State University. Contrino reminded the board that parking will be limited and people will be encouraged to go to Westfield Middle School and take the shuttle that will be provided to go to the staging areas.

“We are praying for a clear day,” said Contrino.

Flaherty joked that he wasn’t too sure how many people are going to be watching because it seems like everyone in the city is going to be in the parade itself.

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