Brattleboro is beginning to think about energy over the long haul

BRATTLEBORO — Are we at a turning point in Brattleboro in how we look at budgets and energy? Are we starting to look more deeply at the longer term and at life cycle costs and not just initial investment? Does that approach line up better with energy savings and thus more effectively also address climate change?

I believe we have signs of such a turning point, as evidenced by a mixed bag of recent decisions by the Selectboard.

Every year there is great pressure on the board members to keep property taxes low for the succeeding year. Yet this year they have chosen to look out over several years.

They can do so partly because town staff have produced a realistic five-year capital plan, which was possible in part because an analysis was done of the effect the first year's choices will have on the following year's taxes and fund balance.

It has also been because some conversations have begun on life cycle costs, an approach first pushed by my Energy Committee predecessors. That is, there is starting to be the realization that the costs to be considered for major capital projects and purchases should include not just the initial investment but also yearly operational costs and (if financed through a bond or loan) yearly principal and interest.

It is starting to sink in that Brattleboro's operational fuel costs have risen considerably (above inflation) since 2010 because life-cycle costs have not been considered often enough in the past.

It has also been partly because some decisions are beginning to relate to the building-by-building energy-saving measures recommended in the municipal energy audits completed in 2016.

Some of us feel the life-cycle-cost approach should have been applied more completely in the design of the Police-Fire Facilities project. At this point, all three buildings will be getting propane-fired (i.e., fossil-fuel-fired) boilers and no heat-pump technology. Future retrofits may be possible but will be costly.

There is no doubt that external factors can skew the decision-making process.

That current oil prices are so very low affected the decisions on whether to opt for wood pellet boilers.

That parking lots are definitely in need of repaving affected the decision on whether to use the Parking Fund to tighten up the Transportation Center to save on heat.

That we don't yet know whether the town will be staying in the Municipal Center affected the decision whether to have a shared pellet boiler with the Brooks Memorial Library, where the need for a new heating system is getting critical.

That Brattleboro pays much-higher municipal property taxes than its surrounding communities affects everything.

Regarding the municipal building energy audits: Only if we spend money up front on energy-saving measures will we save money - and fuel and energy - every year over the next 15 or 20 years. This factor needs to be continually weighed.

I think the Selectboard should be commended for beginning to wrestle with these matters and for beginning to make next year's decisions in light of the effect on following years and on climate change.

I thank them for the partial wins not just for the bottom line but also for the environment in agreeing to some of the energy-saving measures for the library and (depending on its fate) the Municipal Center.

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