MASSENA — Saturday marked a special occasion for the Massena Electric Department.
It had been 40 years ago, on May 8, 1981, that the municipal electric utility began operations.
In 1974, Massena voters went to the polls to determine the fate of a referendum that, if passed, would see the creation of a new municipal electric company for the community. In response to the support shown by voters, the Massena Town Board passed a resolution on May 30, 1974 to create the Massena Electric Department.
Prior to that, customers had paid Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. for its energy. Niagara Mohawk was acquired by National Grid in 2002.
A banner headline in the May 31, 1974 edition of the Massena Observer announced the results of the initial referendum in 1974:
Municipal Power Passes
3,640 Vote Yes; 2,180 Vote No
More than 5,800 voters favored the 30-year, $4.5 million bond issue in the first step in the eventual purchase of the Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. serving Massena.
Condemnation proceeds and litigation in the courts took seven years before the Massena Electric Department was able to flip the switch on its own system.
“When (Village Trustee) Fred Cook had a vision in the early ‘70s for local control of our distribution, there were a lot of critics. He was the one that got the ball rolling. Then it became a town project and just went from there. But there were a lot of people with vision who understood how it could benefit the community. Since then, there are a lot of your neighbors who have worked hard to make Massena Electric successful,” Massena Electric Department Superintendent Andrew J. McMahon said.
He said Eugene L. Nicandri, retired county court judge and current vice chair of the New York Power Authority Board of Trustees, was the original attorney who “fought many of the early battles to help get Massena electric set up in 1981.” Ed Kaneb was the original volunteer MED board chair. He worked with MED’s long-time superintendent, Cliff Engstrom, to put Massena Electric on the right path.
“I got started about 1971. I was out of law school six years,” Judge Nicandri said.
He had been appointed as village attorney and, in 1966, became town attorney and was involved in the entire transition process from Niagara Mohawk to the Massena Electric Department.
Three referendums were held, in 1974, 1977 and 1981.
“I was the town attorney when the initial referendums were underway. The first authorized $4.5 million to take over the system. Niagara Mohawk spent about $250,000 opposing that. The town couldn’t spend any money. All they could do was put it up for vote. That was the early stage,” Judge Nicandri said.
He said United Auto Workers put up about $5,000 for publicity, urging the residents to get out and vote in favor of the takeover. Individual donors also contributed to the effort.
He said the initial referendum was very contentious and passed by about a 3 to 2 margin.
“It split families at the time. Some living here worked for Niagara Mohawk. Some other family members were in favor of the proposal to establish the Massena Electric Department. There were people living here whose relatives lived elsewhere and worked for Niagara Mohawk. There were a lot of connections here,” Judge Nicandri said.
Because issues involved the Federal Power Commission, now the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the town engaged what was then the Duncan, Weinberg law firm from Washington to act as adviser to the town and legal counsel to provide expertise on licensing issues. The town also hired R.W. Beck as the engineering firm to conduct the engineering study.
“We scheduled some public forums at the Massena High School auditorium where our engineering firm, R.W. Beck presented details on what the proposal was. The lawyers, myself included, presented the legal issues for anyone who wanted to come, and the place was packed,” he said.
Niagara Mohawk was offered a chance to rebut, and a second forum was held to discuss its side. The company thought its system was worth $15 million to the town of Massena. The town, on the other hand, thought it was worth about $1.5 million.
“The referendum passed. That gave the town the authority to try to negotiate a deal with Niagara Mohawk, so we started some negotiations. That didn’t go very well,” Judge Nicandri said.
The next few years were spent in courts, starting with a lawsuit filed by St. Lawrence County that would allow the town to take over the facilities inside the town of Massena. Niagara Mohawk opposed that action and it was dismissed.
An Evaluation Commission later came up with their evaluation of what the town had to pay Niagara Mohawk to take over the system — approximately $4.2 million. And in late 1980, Niagara Mohawk’s general counsel invited Judge Nicandri to Syracuse to talk about the Massena takeover.
“We came to a general agreement price. It was $7.8 million or something like that on the condition that we took the facilities that were outside the town of Massena that were served on lines that emanated from the substations in the town of Massena,” he said.
The request was made so that Niagara Mohawk would not have to build lines and substations to feed the towns of Louisville, Norfolk, Brasher and Stockholm.
“We agreed to do that. It necessitated us getting a franchise to operate an electric utility in those townships. Part of our agreement was Niagara Mohawk would not oppose before those town boards their granting our application for a license,” Judge Nicandri said.
So, the third and final referendum was held to authorize the town to service the other four towns and also to raise an approximate $10.5 million bond that covered what they agreed to pay Niagara Mohawk, as well as paying for services such as the engineering and legal fees incurred by the town.
“It was all done in late 1980, early 1981. We sold the bonds, got the $10.5 million and closed on May 8, 1981,” he said.
Judge Nicandri said Massena’s success was a tribute to the boards that continued supporting the efforts through the years.
“To the credit of the town board at the time and the community, they stayed the course to see these things over a lot of obstacles and opposition. I think kudos go out to those elected officials that had the wherewithal to stay the course and the community itself to stay the course and see this through,” he said.
Massena Town Supervisor Steven D. O’Shaughnessy agreed.
“The residents who live within the Massena Electric District are very fortunate to be able to take advantage of the low electric rates. Fred Cook, who as a Massena village trustee, realized that the municipality was eligible for a block of low cost electricity. Thanks to him and others who had the foresight to work towards a municipal system, we now have a reliable, inexpensive and vibrant electric system throughout Massena and the surrounding area. We are also appreciative to the men and women of the IBEW and managers that continue to keep our system in terrific shape,” he said.
Mr. McMahon said they are continually investing in the system to ensure it stays strong for its customers. He credits the staff and the Massena Electric Utility Board for Massena’s operation continuing to be top-notch.
“They’ve continued to invest money in making sure the staff has the right tools, equipment and materials. They continue to invest in making sure we’re going to have a reliable system. The vision in the early ‘70s has been and continues to be a great benefit to our customers. Now it’s just staying up with having good equipment out there, good poles, good equipment at our substation so we can keep the lights on as much as reasonably possible,” he said.