Working to Improve Utility Company Service to Home Builders

January 2017

Below is an article Mark penned for Bay State Builder Magazine:

The frustrations described by homebuilders in their dealings with utility companies, particularly National Grid and Eversource, are palpable. Needless delays, poor communication, and unpredictable costs have been the hallmark of our collective experiences with public utilities. So when we report to our members that we are making progress, rightfully this news may be received with skepticism. However, we have taken a multi-pronged approach to these problems that we believe is starting to pay benefits.

First, we brought our members' concerns directly to the Baker-Polito Administration when it first took office. In a meeting with members of the North East Builders Association in 2015, arranged by President-Elect Gary Campbell, homebuilders had the opportunity to personally tell Lt. Governor Karyn Polito of the delays caused by utility companies, and the needless bureaucracy in dealing with them. Lt. Governor Polito vowed to take action to ensure better service, improved communication, and greater transparency in order fulfillment and pricing.

Since that meeting, Department of Public Utilities Chairman Angela O'Connor has held three meetings with all of the utility companies and stakeholders in the real estate community. The Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts (HBRAMA) was afforded a number of representatives at the meetings. Brian Lussier of Comfort Homes of Dracut, Jeff Rhuda of Symes Associates of Beverly, Nick Meninno of Meninno Construction of Lynn, and association counsel Benjamin Fierro have all ably represented our members interests. One of our key participants in all those discussions has been Russell Leonard of Leonard Electric of Lowell, MA. Russ has decades of experience dealing directly with the utilities, and his knowledge has been invaluable.

Conversations at these meetings have focused on the need for the utilities to bring more resources to the table on both the electric and gas side. Resources are essential, as more trained and qualified crews to do gas work in particular would speed up service to our developments. And importantly, a clear message has been delivered to the utility companies from both the DPU and the HBRAMA that they must take meaningful steps to improve their service and interactions with homebuilders.

The DPU intends to convene a further meeting of the utilities and real estate community in March. The HBRAMA is most grateful for the leadership, commitment and patience exhibited by DPU Chair O'Conner throughout this process.

Eversource Process Improvement Meetings with Home Builders

The HBRAMA set up a meeting with Eversource on April 22, 2016. Our team had powerful representatives, including Bill Marsh and Don Poyant of the Eastward Companies in Chatham; Ben Stevens of Trask, Inc. of Southborough; Russ Leonard; Ben Fierro; Charles Aggouras of GFC Development of Weston; and Fred Tonsberg of Stonecroft Properties of Kingston, MA. Eversource was represented by top officials in their gas and electric management ranks, including their vice presidents for Massachusetts engineering and field operations.

For more than two hours our members described many negative experiences with the company from needless delays in design; the simplest of problems taking many months for resolution; and the lack of access to qualified personnel.
Our representatives were encouraged at a follow-up meeting on September 14, 2016, when Eversource announced several changes to their policies and procedures. First, prior to our initial meeting, Eversource required approved and recorded development plans before they would start design work. The company will now begin this work without finalized plans, speeding up the timeline for design. Second, they have set a goal to reduce the design process timeframe by 20%. Third, they have engaged with their engineers to become more available during the design process to meet our members on site and communicate better until the designs are finalized. This will give our members better access to qualified personnel rather than just the single point of contact representative.

We are pleased that Eversource has agreed to the HBRAMA's request for follow-up meetings with our team to monitor progress and continue to seek process improvements.

National Grid On Deck

National Grid announced at our most recent meeting with the DPU that it is will be engaging in a similar process with the development community. It has scheduled a meeting for late January to determine what changes National Grid needs to make. As you are aware, we have had conversations for many years with National Grid, but to date with those conversations have resulted in limited improvements for our broader membership. We are hopeful, however, that National Grid is more intent at this time to make many changes that will better facilitate increased housing production in Massachusetts.

Our members can be assured that HBRAMA will assemble a qualified team to represent our membership at this important first meeting with National Grid, and hopefully with follow-up engagements thereafter. Rest assured, we are working hard on your behalf to make things better.

Mark Leff is past President of HBRAMA, and Chairman of the Utility Subcommittee of the Government Affairs Committee.