Elected leaders in Greater New Haven tell electric companies to clean up their acts

NORTH HAVEN >> Area municipal leaders are sick of cleaning up after utility companies that leave stumps — and sometime tree trunks — just lying there after workers take down trees as part of their efforts to maintain power lines.

This week, the South Central Regional Council of Governments voted to send a letter to United Illuminating, Eversource Energy and the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, calling on UI and Eversource to clean up their acts, after East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. raised the issue.

The council, made up of the chief elected officials or their designees from 15 Greater New Haven cities and towns, voted Wednesday to send the letter by a 10-1 margin, with only Meriden City Manager Guy Scaife voting against it. Three others — Wallingford Mayor William Dickinson Jr., Bethany First Selectwoman Derrylyn Gorski and Madison First Selectman Tom Banisch — abstained.

The representatives of New Haven, East Haven, West Haven, North Haven, Woodbridge, Orange, Branford, Guilford, Hamden and North Branford supported the initiative, which appeared to be aimed primarily at UI, although some leaders of communities served by Eversource said they had experienced similar issues.

Milford Mayor Ben Blake was absent.

Both utilities have been criticized in the recent past for their aggressive tree-cutting to protect their lines following the problems they and their customers experienced after Tropical Storm Irene and Superstorm Sandy.

Maturo said that while “most of us get along with UI,” the problem in his town has been “UI leaving stumps when it does” what he called “its clear-cutting.”

He said he did not think it was appropriate, “just as it’s not appropriate for us to repair the streets when UI digs them up.”

“As good a relationship as we have with the UI, I don’t think it’s the town’s responsibility to send a crew out to pick up the mess left by UI,” Maturo said, with a UI staff member sitting across the room.

“I don’t think it’s the responsibility” of the town “that we have to subsidize what a company has to do to stay in business,” he said.

West Haven Mayor Ed O’Brien, whose city also is served by UI, chimed in, saying West Haven had to go out and buy a stump grinder to get rid of all the stumps UI leaves behind.

“I agree” with Maturo, O’Brien said. UI tells West Haven officials “we don’t have the funds to clean up,” but “the reality is, we don’t have the funds either,” he said. “But we can’t just leave them there.”

Residents “are paying the rates to the UI. UI should finish the job,” O’Brien said.

North Haven First Selectman Michael Freda, whose town also is served by UI, said North Haven is doing the same thing with its own stump grinder as West Haven.

But Orange First Selectman James Zeoli — after pointing out that UI, which is headquartered in Orange, is the town’s largest taxpayer — said that different communities may have different problems, and the problems being described might be “more urban” problems, in communities that, unlike Orange, are fully sidewalked.

“You should keep that in mind when you draft the letter,” Zeoli suggested.

On Thursday, spokesmen for both UI and Eversource responded to questions raised at the meeting.

“UI understands the concerns of local leaders,” said UI spokesman Edward Crowder in a brief, two-sentence email. “However, we follow a state-approved process to trim and remove trees that pose a threat to safe and reliable service.”

Photographs that Maturo passed around the table at the Council of Governments show tree trunks and sections of trunks lying on the ground after UI took the trees down — something that, according to Crowder’s counterpart at Eversource, would not be allowed by the state.

Eversource spokesman Mitch Gross pointed out in an emailed statement that Eversource adheres to state statutes governing the trimming of trees, and said that “while state statute requires us to remove logs after trimming, we work with the individual tree owners to determine if they want the wood. Many do.”

In the same statement, Gross said, “As trees are the number one cause of outages on our system, especially during storms, tree trimming is a vital part of our maintenance program. We work hard with our tree contractors to be sure they clean up after completing a job.

“When a customer or a town official has a concern or request about any phase of tree trimming, we encourage them to contact us — and they do,” he said.

Eversource serves “149 of the state’s 169 towns and cities and have over 16,000 miles of overhead electric lines to maintain,” Gross said. “We cut, trim and clean up along about a quarter of those 16,000 miles annually. That’s a huge responsibility we take very seriously ... and a big part of that is communicating with our customers and town officials.”

Meriden’s Scaife, the one vote against sending the letter, said, “I see it differently. That tree is not theirs” and they need not be responsible for its disposal, he said.

Mayor O’Brien said that while “it’s not their tree ... the city didn’t choose to trim it or take it down.”