Select Board mashup: Town solar farm now a question; supervisory union budget transparency questioned and answering a question: Who hired the consultant?

By Shawn Cunningham

The Chester Select Board seems to be talking itself out of a solar farm deal that it has been working on for the past eight months. During its meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 18, board member Derek Suursoo kicked off the discussion on the proposed solar farm — slated for town land off Route 103 near Trebo Road — by saying, “The bloom is off the rose. I am no longer convinced that this is a good thing to do for the town.” Board chair John DeBenedetti said that a contract with a company to manage the solar farm needed to be crafted carefully because there are “things (in the contract) that may not be viable.”

Board member Tom Bock said that he is attracted to the concept but would like to hear the objections.  solar featured art

Member Bill Lindsay said he would like to eliminate the “floor plan” and agree on a price for the lifetime of the land lease, pointing out that since there hasn’t been a groundswell against the idea, people must be for it.

“We never saw this as a big money maker,” said board member Arne Jonynas. “The only way we lose is if the price of power goes down.”

Bock said the town stood to gain $18,000 per year in the deal to which Suursoo countered that the $18,000 isn’t real.

At that point the board laid terms of the agreement on the table. The developer would pay $5,500 per year in rent and  between $6,500 and $8,500 per year in taxes. The “floor” in the 20-year project refers to a scheme in which the town guarantees the developer 14.7 cents per kilowatt hour produced and, through a state program, Green Mountain Power would pay the town 20.7 cents. This would give the town a profit of 6 cents per kw/hr, which is calculated to amount to about $4,000 per year.

But the state program is scheduled to lapse in 10 years and if the price of power drops below the 14.7-cent guarantee, the town would be paying a premium for power. Members discussed the idea that prices for power tend not to go down and that there is a buyout clause at 10 years, when the town could then be in the power-business making money.

Bock asked the board to keep their minds open until they hear from town attorney Jim Carroll. DeBenedetti then called the negotiations “very one sided – it was almost bullying.”

Suursoo said he thought it was “pie in the sky” that the town was going to get $18,000 a year from the project and that “it was all hype to get us in the door.” Bock objected to the characterization, but Suursoo said he stood by it.

Jonynas added that if the contract was in force right now, “we’d be getting rent, the tax money and a credit on our electric bill.”

Town employee insurance

David Sichel from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns speaks about health care reform before the Chester Select Board. Photo by Shawn Cunningham

David Sichel from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns speaks about health care reform before the Chester Select Board. Photo by Shawn Cunningham

David Sichel, deputy director of Risk Management Services for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, then made a lengthy presentation on the impact of the new health care exchange mandated by the federal Affordable Care Act on the town’s employee insurance.

Sichel noted that the town’s employees and families have been fairly healthy, so the bet that the Select Board made in insuring them has paid off. Currently the town offers a high deductible health insurance policy to its full time employees but then pays all out of pocket expenses. This works out to be cheaper than a policy with a lower deductible as long as the pool is healthy. If  there were a lot of claims, the town would have an unbudgeted shortfall that could be substantial.

Under the new exchanges, the town can keep the same arrangement by selecting the plan and contributing to the employees’ account. The employee can then choose the town insurance or another – although it was noted that it would be unusual for someone to go to another plan since under its plan the town pays for everything.

 Supervisory union budget transparency

In preparation for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns “Town Fair” in early October, the board discussed the organization’s legislative priorities so that Derek Suursoo could represent the town’s positions. Town manager David Pisha suggested that the supervisory union budgets should be voted on by residents, contending that these budgets are folded into those of the schools within the union but are never seen. Suursoo agreed.

But Jonynas, who has served on the Green Mountain school board, asked, “What makes you say that (the budget) is not available, not transparent?”

Suursoo said he had never seen a supervisory union budget, to which Jonynas replied, “Have you ever inquired at the supervisory union to see the budget?” Suursoo said he had not. Jonynas then explained that the budget is available on request and that representatives of the member school districts vote on it. (Editor’s note: The budget also is available online: Rivers Budget FY14 Details.pdf )

Nevertheless, Suursoo and Bill Lindsay felt that the process was not transparent enough and they find it hard to understand how the budget is made up.

Jonynas suggested making the budget available a month before the school boards’ vote to give the public an opportunity to review it and talk with their representatives.

On the word ‘liberalizing’ and error over environmental court role

Although Chester does not have parking meters, Suursoo suggested that the wording in the league’s legislative priorities regarding “liberalizing” a municipality’s ability to use meter revenue be changed so as not to use the word “liberal,” which he felt has political overtones. Lindsay agreed saying, “I don’t particularly like the word liberal either.”

On another matter, Bock said that the league should advocate limiting the power of the courts to use town plans as regulatory documents. He said that a consultant had come to the Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission to suggest wording that would be more effective in court decisions. Referring to “the environmental courts and Act 250 commissions.” Bock said, “These bodies have gone so far as to hire outside consultants that have looked at these plans and started to issue criticisms of them … I do not think a couple of judges and some Act 250 chairmen should have this kind of effect on land use planning locally.”

“These bodies have gone so far as to hire outside consultants that have looked at these plans and started to issue criticisms of them … I do not think a couple of judges and some Act 250 chairmen should have this kind of effect on land use planning locally.”

Tom Bock
Chester Select Board

Reached on Tuesday Sept. 24, Diane Chamberlain of the Vermont Superior Court Environmental Division said definitively, “We don’t hire consultants.”

“We don’t hire consultants.”

Diane Chamberlain
Vermont Superior Court Environmental Division

Minutes of the May 21, 2013 Southern Windsor planning commission meeting note that a consultant was not hired by the courts but by the Vermont Association of Planning and Development Agencies, of which the commission is a member. The purpose, according to the minutes, was  “… to review all regional plans for compliance with State statutory requirements.” The consultant, Brandy Sexton of Place Sense, reviewed all 11 regional plans and was making presentations to the planning commissions to report on the results of her review. The SWCRPC received its presentation from Sexton at its June 18, 2013 meeting.

Reached by phone on Tuesday, Sept. 24, Jason Rasmussen, senior planner for the Southern Windsor planning commission, confirmed that the state’s regional planning commissions have been working together through VAPDA to evaluate regional plans. “The language we put in our town and regional plans is very important,” said Rasmussen. “Traditionally plans were policy while zoning bylaws were regulations. But statutes like Act 250 have standards written into the law that give a role for these plans in state proceedings.”

  • In other business, Alice Soujanen donated to the town 7,500-square-feet of land on Reservoir Road. She told the board that the land had been sliced off when her family’s home had been sold and would be a nice place for school groups to picnic and see nature. She said that she would be hard pressed to afford any costs of transferring it and after a short discussion, the board agreed to begin the paperwork without taking a vote.
  • It was also announced that Cold River Bridges has been awarded the contract to reconstruct the Missing Link bridge and that through funding from FEMA, the town will probably not have to pay anything for the construction or engineering. Steel for the bridge has been ordered and the company hopes to complete the construction as soon as possible

The meeting adjourned at 11:10 p.m.

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