By Daymond Steer
SACO, Maine — Maine Water Co. has reached an agreement with Fryeburg Water Co.to take over serving the water utility's 850 public water customers in Fryeburg, Maine, and East Conway.
As of Monday, Maine Water started operating and maintaining the public water system, including customer service, billing and accounting.
According to a letter Maine Water sent to Fryeburg Water customers, rates will stay the same.
The agreement expires March 31, 2017, unless it's extended by both parties. All day-to-day water treatment, distribution and maintenance of the water system will be Maine Water's responsibility, in compliance with water quality rules and regulations.
"The Fryeburg Water Co. has simply elected to hire Maine Water Co. to manage their utility operation in response to recent staff changes," Maine Water Vice President of Operations Rick Knowlton said in a statement released last week, adding that Fryeburg Water Co. will continue to own and be responsible for Fryeburg's water system.
"Maine Water Co. staff will operate the Fryeburg water system in accordance with all applicable federal, state and local laws and rules, and will report to the board of directors of the Fryeburg Water Co," he said.
Judy Wallingford, president of Maine Water, said: "All of us at Maine Water are looking forward to serving the Fryeburg Water Co. customers. ... We appreciate the Fryeburg Water customers' patience as we work through the transition."
Maine Water will read meters, issue water bills and process payments for customers, as well as handling customer calls and inquiries.
Fryeburg Water customers will connect with the Maine Water customer service center in Saco through an 800 number.
Referring to "recent personnel changes," Jean Andrews, vice president of Fryeburg Water, said that "engaging with Maine Water as a management company is a good solution for our customers and communities.
"Maine Water can provide continuity of service and meet the public health and safety needs of the community," she said. "Maine Water has a deeper bench of employees to call upon to operate the water system, and it can offer additional billing and payment services for our customers."
Asked for comment, Andrews deferred to Knowlton.
Knowlton said Andrews is no longer a full-time employee of Fryeburg Water Co. but now works for a local school district. He said water operator Eric Belcher has also moved on.
But George Weston remains president of Fryeburg Water. John Hastings continue to serve on Fryeburg Waters board of directors and be a shareholder but will no longer have any day-to-day responsibilities.
Each Fryeburg Water Co. customer was mailed a letter with details about the transition, customer service contact information and new services available.
Maine Water serves 32,000 customers, or a population of 100,000, in over 20 communities throughout the state of Maine.
In a phone interview, Knowlton confirmed that Maine Water can run the system within Fryeburg Water Company's existing rate structure.
Asked about Fryeburg Water Co.'s long-term agreement with Nestle Waters for water from Fryeburg's aquifer, Knowlton said Fryeburg Water would continue to serve Nestle but Maine Water would do the operational oversight and administration of the agreement.
Maine Water's involvement would not change anything between Fryeburg Water Co. and Nestle Waters, he said.
In May, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld the Public Utility Commission's approval of a long-term contract between Fryeburg Water. and Nestle Waters North America (operating locally as Poland Spring).
According to Poland Spring, the contract creates a stable source of income for Fryeburg Water Co., which helps to maintain stable rates for their customers. The minimum purchase per year is 75 million gallons. Poland Spring isn't required to take that much but is required to pay for at least that much. He said that's to ensure that Fryeburg Water Co.'s revenue doesn't get too low.
Knowlton also said the Fryeburg water system will remain the same as it was in terms of infrastructure. "Only the faces of the field staff that treat and deliver the water will change," he said.
Knowlton said Maine Water Co.'s staff "looks forward" to meeting Fryeburg Water District Trustees and other members of the community.
Fryeburg Water District Trustees were to meet Monday evening after deadline. Chairman Greg Huang-Dale said Maine Water would be a topic of conversation at their meeting and that trustees want to learn more about the agreement. He also said Fryeburg Water trustees are concerned about the dry conditions this summer and the low water table in Maine.
For more information, visit www.MaineWater.com