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    Maine Natural Gas quits Augusta pipeline fight

    Company takes out full-page ad to blast Augusta officials over bid handling

    Kennebec Journal, July 16, 2013

    By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
    Staff Writer

    AUGUSTA — One of two companies competing to bring natural gas to city property, frustrated with the city’s bid process, has withdrawn its bid and the City Council Thursday will consider giving the contract to the competing company.

    In an open letter to the Augusta City Council Tuesday, Brunswick-based Maine Natural Gas announced it is withdrawing its proposal to provide city property, including schools, with gas and will focus on expanding its system throughout the city.

    City Manager William Bridgeo said Tuesday he will ask the City Council at its meeting Thursday to consider giving the contract to Summit Natural Gas of Maine, the other company competing to provide gas to city property.

    “We don’t want to prolong this dispute with the city, we have a system to build,” said Dan Hucko, spokesman for Maine Natural Gas parent company Iberdola USA Tuesday.

    The firm last week charged that the city violated its own rules and gave an unfair advantage to its competitor by posting the bids on the city website.

    But city officials said Tuesday the city didn’t violate its ordinance and had promised the process would be as open to the public as possible.

    Mayor William Stokes said the bids had been on the city’s website since April 13, but Thursday, when a consultant hired by the city said Summit Natural Gas of Maine’s proposed prices were lower, was the first time either firm complained about it.

    Stokes acknowledged the city’s request for proposals may have contained language indicating the bid details would be kept confidential for a certain period of time, but from the start the council had been unamimous that the process should be open.

    “The council made a conscious decision to make sure everyone was aware of what we were doing,” Stokes said, “If we made a mistake, then we made a mistake on the side of erring for public accountability and openness. We probably should have aligned what our goal was better with the language of the RFP than we did.”

    In its letter Tuesday, Maine Natural Gas called the city’s actions shameful and said they should be “of great concern to the residents and businesses in this fine city.”

    The letter, signed by MNG Vice President Darrel Quimby, said, “Rather than pursuing our rights to protest, we will put all of our efforts into delivering natural gas to the residents and businesses in the city at competitive prices.”

    “It has been a complicated process and most people appreciate that two companies coming in is unique, nationally,” City Manager William Bridgeo said Tuesday. “It has been a challenge to do this in a way that, foremost, looks out for the interests of the residents and taxpayers of Augusta.

    “I want to treat all the parties fairly, but my ethical responsibility is to the city and its residents, and not to one of the for-profit companies coming forth to do business here,” he said.

    Maine Natural Gas said at last Thursday’s City Council meeting that posting the bids on the city website gave Summit an unfair advantage because it was allowed to lower the prices it offered to the city after seeing Maine Natural Gas’ initially lower prices.

    Stokes said Maine Natural Gas made changes to its proposal after its initial bid was submitted to the city, too.

    “This whole claim, now, they’ve been treated unfairly rings sort of hollow for me,”  he said. “They sat on their rights for two-and-a-half months before they realized it was to their advantage to complain about it. And now they’ve withdrawn.”

    The city’s request for proposals stated, in part, “Proposals will be opened publicly and the name of each vendor will be announced (April 12). No other information will be made public at that time or prior to the buyers’ evaluation of all proposals and its distribution of any award notification.”

    Eric Conrad, spokesman for Maine Municipal Association, said he could not comment specifically on when bid results would typically be released to the public, because each has its own specific language.

    “RFPs obviously become public at some point,” he said.

    Tuesday, Hucko elaborated on the decision to withdraw.

    “We decided to exit this process out of frustration that the deck was stacked against us in a number of ways,” Hucko said. “In walking away from this dispute with the city, it’s taking away a distraction and allowing us to get pipeline completed and get gas to customers.”

    The company also alleges city officials, the day after company officials raised concerns about the bid process, expressed reluctance to proceed with an easement city councilors approved last week to allow Maine Natural Gas’ pipeline to cross under the Kennebec River and through city-owned parks on both sides of the river, to provide service to the west side. The line is coming in from Windsor, to the east of the city.

    Maine Natural Gas had agreed to pay the city $50,000 for the easement.

    The firm said canceling the easement could threaten Maine Natural Gas’ ability to deliver gas to the  MaineGeneral Medical Center hospital under construction in north Augusta and the University of Maine at Augusta, both on the west side of the river, and its other commercial and residential customers.

    Hucko said Maine Natural Gas considers the RFP matter settled and separate from the easement, “and we hope the city sees it the same way.”

    Stokes and Hucko said city and company lawyers discussed the easement Tuesday.

    “The city fully appreciates the importance of natural gas coming to the entirety of Augusta,” Bridgeo said. “And we’re committed to working with both companies to make that happen as expeditiously as possible.”

    Maine Natural Gas officials said they remain committed to providing businesses and residents in Augusta with gas, and expect to have gas flowing to north Augusta by September.

    Summit Natural Gas of Maine, meanwhile, now may have the business of providing gas to city and school property in Augusta all to itself.

    “Our proposal is a commitment to the city and its residents,” Mike Minkos, president of Summit Natural Gas of Maine, said by email. “Our investment of more than $60 million in the city of Augusta is based on our proven business model and track record to provide competitive rates and the most access to homes and businesses, a project that will have a tremendously positive economic impact for the community.”

    Minkos said the city’s RFP process was well-administered and engaged residents.

    Keith Edwards — 621-5647
    kedwards@centralmaine.com