BY ANGELO LYNN
BRANDON — A lengthy discussion on how Brandon should be investing in renewable energy and lowering its carbon footprint conflicted with the perceived practical realities of the times at the town’s selectboard meeting Monday night.
In particular, the selectboard engaged in a 25-minute discussion on whether to buy a new electric police cruiser or gas-powered cruiser that became fraught with overtones of not funding the police department at a satisfactory level. While some of the discussion was off-topic and drew questioning from Town Manager David Atherton, it did reflect on the night’s decision, which was two-fold: Did the police department need a seventh vehicle immediately and should that vehicle be gas-powered or electric?
The conversation was prompted by a board request two weeks ago asking the town’s Energy Committee to draw an apples-to-apples comparison between the cost and functionality of buying an electric police cruiser versus a gas-powered one. The problem facing the police department today is that of their seven vehicles, one, a Dodge Charger sedan, is 12-plus years old, worn out and needs to be replaced. That leaves the department with one Ford 150 pickup, two Ford Explorers, two Ford Tauruses, and two Dodge Chargers (one of which is in the shop.)
The police department currently has six officers and Chief David Kachajian. In the town’s contract with its police officers, one of the stated benefits is that each officer will be issued a police-equipped vehicle they can drive home so it’s at their ready. Currently, the six officers and the chief are able to provide 20 hour coverage seven days a week, with four hours of on-call duty each day. Chief David Kachajian is pressing to hire a seventh officer to provide 24-7 coverage — a desire expressed by Brandon residents in a formal vote several years ago.
The Energy Committee presented a very complete comparison of the cost savings an electric cruiser would have over a gas-powered cruiser. Member Jack Schneider presented an abbreviated version of the 4-page report to the selectboard, in which the basic math showed an electric vehicle would save about $7,000 annually in gas and operational costs, would last far longer before needing replacement and wouldn’t be harming the environment. A Model 3 Tesla costs in the mid-$50,000, but would also need police modifications and add-ons that would bring the cost closer to the high $50,000 mark.
Problems with the electric vehicle, of which Ford and Tesla are the two competitive makers in police vehicles, is that they are typically too small for a prisoner cage; are smaller and more compact for police officers when fully belted up; they have lower ground clearance that is often not suitable for deep snow or deeply rutted muddy roads; and their immediate availability (because of a backlog of orders) is six-months out at least, if not longer.
By comparison, the Ford Explorer that G. Stone Motors of Middlebury offered would be available by this August, would come completely furnished with the police package, has ample room and clearance as a 4×4 SUV and would cost $45,242. That price, however, does not include the higher annual operational costs of $7,000 a year in fuel and maintenance, not to mention replacement costs.
The board’s conflict was not about what’s right or wrong long-term — electric was the clear answer for everyone in the room — but rather, what was practical now, how badly was the vehicle needed, and did it make more sense to satisfy the police department’s need in the short-term and start building the department’s electric fleet when the next cruiser was needed a year or more from now.
The energy committee and selectman Tim Guiles led the argument for buying an electric vehicle this time, or not buying a new one at all right now. Guiles had three issues: first, that the town should review its policy of providng a police cruiser to every officer as part of their contract. He noted that the practical effect was to be paying for that vehicle to sit unused at an officer’s house when they were not on duty, rather than pooling the department’s assets for officers on active duty. Second, he objected to buying a gas-powered vehicle when electric was a viable option and was clearly better for the environment. And third, there was no reason to move from a Dodge Charger sedan to a much larger SUV Ford Explorer.
“It’s simply a mistake in this era to move to a bigger vehicle, an SUV, when there is a viable option for change,” Guiles said. “It’s just wrong.”
Energy Committee member Jim Emerson countered another argument from resident Patricia Welch, who was adamant that the town should not even think of “defunding the police” by reconsidering whether the police contract included providing a police vehicle to every officer. While several board members assured her the conversation wasn’t about defunding the police department, but rather reallocating resources to provide the department more resources over the long-term, that argument seemed to get lost in the more emotional appeal of providing all officers with a cruiser 24-7 so, if needed, they could respond quickly to incidents.
Emerson tried to explain the long-term benefit of moving as soon as was reasonable to an electric fleet, a move that would allow the town to provide more funds to the department, not less, over the longer term.
With an eventual fleet of seven EV’s, Emerson said, the savings would add up to $49,000 a year. Furthermore, the proven useful life of a Tesla (as a “million mile” car) should cut replacement costs in at least half, “saving roughly $33,000-plus a year for a fleet of 7 vehicles, after taking into account the current initial price differential. Thus, by the time we move to a full EV fleet we would either save 10% of the police budget a year, or be in a position to pay far more attractive compensation packages to our police staff.”
The idea of defunding the police department, Emerson added later, was totally misconstrued because the outcome of going to electric vehicles would be more cost effective in the long-run.
But selectman Brian Coolidge took the side of Chief Kachajian, who had previously presented his findings at the selectboard meeting two weeks earlier, and said he believed the Ford Explorer was the practical choice for the department at this time. Kachajian made a compelling case about the safety of the Ford Explorer’s police package compared to the Tesla or Ford models, it’s low clearance and small interior space, which is not well suited to either a prisoner cage or adequate room for the officer.
“The safety of my officers is my primary concern,” the chief said, adding that right now the EV options just weren’t as practical and the availability of the EV might be a year out. “Don’t get me wrong, I very much support going with an electric fleet when those models can meet police needs,” he said.
He said several times that he fully expected that electric police cruisers would be a viable option in the near future, but at this very moment the factors favored the Ford Explorer.
“I know what the reports say, and I appreciate the research,” Coolidge added, “but I respect what our chief says too,” adding that the chief had studied the issue, presented his own comparisons two weeks earlier and his calculus favored the Ford Explorer that was readily available in Middlebury.
In the end, in a 3-2 decision, selectmen Coolidge, Tracy Wyman and Mike Markowski voted to buy the Ford Explorer from G. Stone Motors, while Guiles and selectboard Chair Seth Hopkins voted against.
COMMUNITY SOLAR, SOLARFEST
That discussion had followed another lengthy conversation about whether to invest ARPA money in a community solar project, either owned by the town on its own land (a 150kw system on top of the former landfill), or perhaps wait to participate in a larger array built on Solarfest’s 60-acres of land it is buying in Brandon just off Steinberg Road (behind the medical clinic north of town) that is accessible from and also borders Route 73.
After a robust discussion in which the Energy Committee argued that the town should devote some of its $1.1 million in federal ARPA funds toward such an investment — because it would generate at least $40,000 in revenue annually for the life of the project — the selectboard said it would postpone any decision until the Solarfest option was on the table, or other options were reviewed. That was also the recommendation of the Energy Committee.
While the Energy Committee also recommended that the selectboard set aside ARPA funds to cover the cost of such an investment, roughly $450,000 to $500,000, the board balked at that recommendation, noting that the town had already committed close to half a million on other projects, and it wasn’t yet ready to commit almost 100 percent of the remaining funds for this one project.
After a thorough discussion, again prompted by solid research done by the Energy Committee, the selectboard tabled any action but pledged to continued the discussion on how best to spend or invest the remaining ARPA funds and thanked Energy Committee members Jim Emerson, Jack Schneider, Economic Development Officer Bill Moore and selectman Tim Guiles for the exhaustive research on both issues — and for building the relationship with Solarfest that eventually convinced them to locate in Brandon.
“Something like this (getting Solarfest to locate in Brandon) doesn’t happen on its own, but rather because a lot of hard work was put into building relationships, doing the research, and answering a lot of questions, so the town thanks you all,” Hopkins said.
In other matters, the selectboard:
• Unanimously approved Jack Schneider to replace Dave Atherton as a member of the Rutland Regional Planning Commission representative, as he is also newly appointed to the Brandon Planning Commission.
• Announced two vacancies on the town planning commission and called for any resident interested in filling those positions.
• Disagreed with a legal opinion in which an attorney suggested funding the town’s share of the Otter Creek Mosquito District with a trust dedicated to that purpose did not follow the trust’s wishes. The selectboard disagreed, however, noting that the language written 60 years ago clearly followed that intent and had been used for that purpose for decades. Atherton was asked to consult the town attorney and then engage in a conversation with the trust’s attorney to hopefully resolve the problem.
Resident Bernie Carr spoke up to say that funding of the mosquito district was essential to the town’s quality of life, of which Hopkins responded that the selectboard overwhelmingly agreed the town’s share would be fully funded. He assured Carr the issue at hand was an interpretation of the trust’s intent of what to fund —and that their intent was to clarify with the trust’s attorney that funding the mosquito district was clearly within the intent.
• The selectboard also met in executive session to discuss the process for annual evaluation of the town manager. No action was taken.