Back in 1962, the year that John Howard Burbache was first elected mayor of Berlin, Md., a tiny Eastern Shore town, the major issue in his campaign was the small power plant, which has been owned and operated by the citizenry since 1907.
Burbache argued that his opponent's plan to sell the power plant was foolish. The electorate agreed.
Now, 21 years later, the power plant is at the center of a different kind of controversy. Burbache, who is still mayor, and the town want it to supply electricity to a 3-year-old nursing home on the outskirts of Berlin, a working class town of 2,600 that thousands drive by en route to Ocean City, six miles to the east.
Berlin supplies water, sewerage and police protection for the 171-bed nursing home, which sits on 30 acres just off of Rte. 113 on the town's border. It would like to recoup some of the $180,000 it invested running water and sewer lines underneath the highway to the home by selling electricity to the facility.
"We're a small town and we need your help," Burbache last week told a General Assembly committee in Annapolis. "This is David versus Goliath, and David needs help."
Goliath, in Burbache's view, is the Delmarva Power and Light Co. the giant company that supplies electricity to much of the Eastern Shore and Delaware. It also supplies electricity to the Berlin Nursing Home, the jurisdiction granted to it as the result of jurisdictional lines drawn up 17 years ago by the state Public Service Commission.
Normally, a dispute like this one would be solved by the PSC. Berlin would have to file a petition asking the PSC to grant it jurisdiction to supply electricity for the nursing home. But Mike Hixson, the lawyer hired by Burbache to advise him on the case, recommended that the town skip the PSC and instead have one of its delegates introduce legislation that would grant it the right to annex the nursing home into its electrical service area.
"I recommended the legislative route because my research shows that there's never been a case before the PSC where the holder of jurisdiction has had it taken away if it opposed the change," Hixson said.
"Delmarva has been eating up little companies like Berlin on the Eastern Shore. Their obvious goal is to eliminate competition," he said. "Our chances with the PSC would not be good. That's why Delmarva keeps saying the PSC should decide."
In fact, Kenneth Jones, who represented Delmarva at the hearing on the Berlin bill in the House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee, went so far as to offer to help Berlin draw up the petition it would take to the PSC.
"And what position, Mr. Jones, would you take on that petition?" asked Del. Donald B. Robertson (D-Montgomery).
"Oh, we would oppose it," Jones answered.
The issue is unlikely to end happily for Burbache this year. Committee members, while sympathetic, say the legislation would be difficult to amend so that it would not have statewide implications. The bill could affect power companies all over the state who could be subject to annexation of their properties by smaller companies.
Burbache argued that only two municipalities, Berlin and Easton, operate their own power plants. Legislators pointed out that other towns, with nonoperating power plants, might be tempted to restart them if legislation like this passed.
Berlin does not operate its power plant full time. It buys some power from Delmarva, although it controls distribution of all its electricity and rates. The power plant is run during peak hours when Delmarva's rates are highest. That way, the citizens of Berlin have cheaper electric bills.
"This whole thing is a shame," a committee member said. "Everything Delmarva says is completely self-serving. But our hands are tied."
Jones, who came to the hearing with a public relations man, a lawyer and two backup lobbyists from Potomac Electric Power Co., insisted to the committee that it would not be in the "public interest" to allow Berlin to take over the nursing home operation.
Later, asked why Delmarva had turned down Berlin's requests to take over the operation, Jones said, "We're in the business of selling electricity. We're not about to give up a customer."
The nursing home pays Delmarva $3,500 a month, said its general manager Dennis Nooner. "The mayor tells me if Berlin supplied the power, it would cost us less," Nooner said. "Obviously, under those circumstances we'd prefer to go with Berlin. In fact, if Berlin cost us just as much as Delmarva, we'd rather go with Berlin. The town's certainly done a lot more for us than Delmarva Power and Light."
Burbache knows he faces an uphill fight in the legislature. But he is not a man who runs from a good battle. The owner of a clothing store in Berlin and the part owner of Ocean Downs Raceway, Burbache was once accused by a mayoral opponent of not living in Berlin. To prove his residence, Burbache dressed in powder blue pajamas on a nightly basis for three months and slept in the window of his store overlooking Main Street.
He is a tall, almost gawky man, who at age 61 still has black hair. "We're trying to be honest about this thing," he said. "We spent a lot of money to run the water and sewer lines under the highway, and we'd like to get some of it back. We think we can supply the nursing home cheaper, help them out and help us out. But right now, we need someone on our side."
Everyone insists they are on Berlin's side. William Badger, one of five PSC commissioners, said that often the PSC frowns on having two suppliers of electricity within one jurisdiction. That fact, he said, would weigh in Berlin's favor.
But, he admitted, he cannot recall a case since the jurisdictional lines were drawn where someone holding jurisdiction had it taken away without an agreement between the two power companies. "But this is one case with a different set of facts," he said. "Speaking as one member of the commission, I think Berlin would have a reasonable chance with a petition."
Frank Heintz, PSC chairman, said Berlin should try the PSC route first. "Then, if they don't get satisfaction, they can try for legislation next year," he said. "Legislation should be a last resort, not the first one."
Whatever the outcome, Burbache said, he will not be deterred. "I hope the legislature will find a way to write the law so we don't affect others," he said. "I'm just talking one nursing home here, not the whole state. Delmarva tried to buy us out once; we wouldn't do it. Now they're trying to run us out of business. They won't do it.
"But," he added smiling, "we could sure use someone backing us up on this one."