Brattleboro board not comfortable with clean energy program
BRATTLEBORO -- The Selectboard is not going to move ahead right now with a program that allows home owners to finance energy efficiency projects against the value of their properties because the board says there are still too many unanswered questions.
Town Meeting Representatives approved the Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, program for Brattleboro at the 2013 Town Meeting.
The program encourages municipalities to set up a special assessment district that allows home owners to pay for energy efficiency projects with loans they take out with the town.
The municipality advances the funding for the project and then collects the money by placing an assessment lien on the taxpayer's property. The loan is collected just like a property tax payment would be, supporters say. It is still a new program in Vermont, and more than 20 towns have moved ahead with it, though only a few projects have been funded so far.
At the Selectboard meeting on Dec. 17, Chairman David Gartenstein said the town has been trying to get answers to some of the questions it has, but the information so far has not satisfied the board, town administrators or the town's attorney.
Gartenstein said town administrators want to know how the money is accounted for on the town's records and he also said the town is concerned about the time it will take for town staff to administer the program.
The town supports energy efficiency upgrades, Gartenstein said, but until the staff and board are more comfortable with the program it is going to have to remain on hold.
"Unfortunately the program documents that were provided by the PACE program raised substantial concerns with the town attorney, the finance director and the interim town manager," Gartenstein said at last week's meeting. "I have some concerns as well about those documents."
Board member David Schoales, who has been attending the meetings of the town's Energy Committee, wanted the board to take up the issue again following the Representative Town Meeting vote to authorize the town to establish a PACE program in Brattleboro
"This program gives us an opportunity for economic development in the community," Schoales said. "I understand there are concerns, but I feel like we have a surplus of caution. It's hard to believe there's a real liability there when other towns around the state are setting up the program and not seeing it as threat."
Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland said it will definitely take staff members time to administer the loans and payments, and even though residents will benefit from the projects, he said in tight budget times there was no extra staff available to oversee the program
"The underlying concept of PACE is nothing to be all that concerned about, and in fact, it is something to be very supportive of," he said. "The manner in which the PACE program is structured, and what it entails on the part of the municipality, continues to give rise to some concerns."
Finance Director John O'Connor said he talked with the town auditors and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, as well as to administrators from Putney and Montpelier, where the program has been approved.
O'Connor said he is still not satisfied how he is supposed to account for the money on the town's books.
If the money flows through the town, and is then repaid over time, he and the auditors want to know where it should show up on the town's finance statement.
"Nobody has an answer as to how these things should be accounted for," O'Connor said. "So I'm just not comfortable jumping into a program without knowing how we are going to be accounting for this."
The Vermont Energy Investment Corp. and Efficiency Vermont are helping towns understand and administer the PACE program.
Peter Adamczyk, managing consultant with VEIC, said he talked with Brattleboro officials about their concerns, and he says VEIC did have answers for all of their questions.
According to Adamczyk, the state has established a fund in a credit union and the money comes out of that account. If the home owner does not pay back the loan the bank can not come to the town for payment, he said, and he said town staff should not have to deal with any of the loan disbursements or payments.
He said town staff should not have to devote substantial time to the program, nor should the money appear anywhere on the town's books because Efficiency Vermont and the bank are administering the money.
"No matter how many times I answer the same questions it seems like they just don't like the answers I am giving," Adamczyk said. "Twenty-five other towns have signed on and they had the same issues. After I talked to them they were comfortable with it."
Brattleboro Energy Committee Chairman Lester Humphreys said the committee is going to continue to work with the Selectboard to convince them to move ahead with the PACE program.
With the vote at Town Meeting, the Selectboard need only approve the program before home owners in Brattleboro will gain access to money for the energy efficiency improvements.
"The town reps voted to create a special assessment district, but we want the town attorney and the Selectboard to be comfortable with the program." Humphreys said. "The Energy Committee is in favor of moving forward with the second financing phase so that this program will be an option for people in Brattleboro as it is other Vermont towns."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com; or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.
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