On Saturday, Dec. 7, at the VECAN/Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network conference in Fairlee the Brattleboro Energy Committee won the Best Overall Energy Committee Award. At the same time progress on weatherizing/tightening up the Brattleboro's town-owned buildings has stalled.
While the challenging municipal budget deliberations for next fiscal year are going on, the Energy Committee is requesting $3,400 this fiscal year so that detailed energy audits of five town-owned buildings can be conducted. These detailed audits will show what kind of savings the town can expect if it subsequently carries out recommended insulation/weatherization work. The committee is making this request this fiscal year with the hope that additional funding can be found for the actual improvements not long afterward.
While $3,400 is not a lot, it is at least symbolically significant in these extremely tight fiscal times. Town departments may well be asked to live with level funded budgets -- or even reduced budgets -- for fiscal year 2015. Town departments have pressing capital needs and are being asked to give up some of those important requests for the near future. Town taxpayers are shouldering larger and larger burdens.
If these energy audits can get done, the town will have a road map for making these buildings more energy efficient. Once the recommended insulation and air-sealing work is carried out, the town will be able to save on its operational costs every year. Also, less heating oil will then be used, a small but needed step in fighting climate change. Additionally, it will fit right into the regional emphasis on Green Building Products and Services that is one strategy from the new CEDS economic development document.
Where the money might come from to pay for the audits is up in the air. Town administration will report on possibilities to the Selectboard, which will potentially decide the matter at the meeting on Jan. 7.
Subsequently, the source of the money to actually carry out the work is also up in the air. Some of us, including members of the Town Meeting Finance Committee that I sit on, would like to see funding included in the FY15 budget proposal that Town Meeting will act on. That in turn could attract matching funding from Efficiency Vermont or elsewhere (as happened in Wilmington). Another potential source is a new round of federal energy block grant money that Sen. Bernie Sanders is fighting for. It is also possible that the Energy Committee will win the state-wide Home Energy Challenge competition and the modest monetary prize that comes with it. Borrowing the money to do the work is yet another avenue.
Putting off these energy audits and the associated improvements will only keep adding to budget woes in future years. Yes, we will need to spend money now to save later. Yes, this is difficult to deal with during very tough fiscal times. Yes, even the audits themselves take up some staff time when there isn't a lot of spare staff time to go around. But using the arguments that the improvements will cost money or that the audits take up staff time as reasons not to do them means that they will never get done. And that the buildings will never get tightened up. And that operational savings in future years will never be realized. And that we will never use less fossil fuel.
I believe that all five members of the Selectboard are showing real thoughtfulness and courage under duress as they discuss the fiscal 2015 municipal budget. This is far from easy work and is a thankless job. But in my opinion the board has not yet shown overall leadership on this matter of the energy audits.
I am not a member of the Energy Committee but I've come to highly respect their work. And to highly respect the way they've gone about it. They act professionally, they do thorough and detailed analyses, they've been patient, they are very reasonable people. They really deserve their statewide award. That they care deeply about reducing town energy use is only a plus in their service to the town.
Energy Committee members and other interested adults were not the only ones from Brattleboro attending the VECAN conference. A group of students and their teacher from Brattleboro Union High School also went. Along with studying climate change in general, they are looking at what actions to address it are happening locally. It would be good for them to know that the town is acting to mitigate climate change. And to understand that the fiscal decisions that go along with this are not easy ones to make.
Michael Bosworth is a Brattleboro Town Meeting Representative and a member of the Town Meeting Finance Committee.