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Norwich Town Meeting: Energy plan has $2 million price tag

  • Rob Gere (Courtesy photograph)

  • Doug Wilberding (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/19/2020 10:01:07 PM
Modified: 2/19/2020 10:14:42 PM

NORWICH — Plans to install energy-efficient upgrades at Tracy Hall have ignited a debate over Norwich’s efforts to combat climate change and could end up fueling an increase in town spending next year.

Voters will decide at Town Meeting whether to borrow more than $2 million in a bond to eliminate the town hall’s dependence on fossil fuels.

They’ll also choose between two Selectboard candidates who hold differing views on the proposed renovations.

The Tracy Hall proposal would see the building’s aging HVAC system, heating controls and lighting replaced as part of a performance contract with Merrimack, N.H.-based Energy Efficiency investments.

The company would then be tapped to install a geothermal system, which uses constant underground temperatures to heat or cool a building.

Town officials say the improvements would replace Tracy Hall’s annual reliance on 5,000 gallons of fuel oil and 870 gallons of liquefied propane — about 15% of the fossil fuel consumed for municipal purposes.

If the project is approved, a 20-year bond would add 1.9 cents to the tax rate. That amounts to an additional $75 in taxes for a home valued at $400,000.

Voters also will be asked to approve $40,000 for a designated climate fund and $30,670 for a regional energy coordinator that would be shared by seven Vermont communities.

One Selectboard contender has characterized the articles as “alarmingly short-sighted (and) riddled with hypocrisy,” while the other says that effectively combating climate change costs money but is worth the investment.

Doug Wilberding, a Norwich native who works in private equity from home, and Rob Gere, an IT specialist at Hanover High School, are both running for the Selectboard seat now held by John Pepper, who intends to step down next month.

Wilberding called the Tracy Hall project “fiscally unwise” and would rather the town install solar panels at its transfer station.

Such an effort would cost less and produce a greater return on taxpayer investment, he said.

“I think the greater issue is just being fiscally prudent,” said Wilberding, 53.

Gere, who serves on the town’s Energy Committee, said his priority is “dealing with the effects of climate change.”

He supports the Tracy Hall project, saying all environmental solutions “tend to cost money.”

The town should be upfront with residents that “things are going to cost more and we have to be more proactive in doing our share to not cause more climate problems,” said Gere, 69.

Both candidates said they’re in favor of keeping Town Manager Herb Durfee, whose position has been in limbo since the Selectboard voted, 3-2, not to extend his three-year contract.

The board then voted, 3-2, this month to reopen contract negotiations, although it’s unclear they’ll be concluded by Town Meeting.

Wilberding said he would be in favor of a short-term contract extension that would allow Selectboard members to revisit Durfee’s performance in one year.

“The financial scam could have been far worse than it was and I think most of his performance issues are not known to the general public,” Wilberding said while referring to a cyber scam last summer that resulted in the loss of nearly $250,000 in taxpayers’ money. Nearly all the money has since been recouped.

Durfee hired Finance Director Donna Flies, who fell prey to the scam and was later fired.

Gere said also supports reopening contract negotiations, saying Durfee is capable of improving.

“I think he’s able of resolving some of those problems now that he’s aware of the seriousness that the board took them with,” Gere said.

Residents also will decide whether to approve a $4.4 million budget, a nearly 4% increase over current spending.

Durfee said on Tuesday that the budget adds one full-time laborer position and a half-time administrative assistant to the town’s public works department.

The spending plan also accounts for increased recreation programming, which will be offset with fees, and salary increases. Health insurance costs are expected to decrease by 15%, Durfee said.

He estimates the operating budget would increase the town’s property tax rate by 2.3 cents, or 5.2%. A property valued at $400,000 would see its tax bill increase by about $94.

The town’s warning also asks whether to amend the Norwich’s existing policing policy to bar local police from inquiring about a person’s immigration status or sharing immigration-related information with federal authorities.

A new policy — similar to ones proposed in Lebanon, Hanover and Hartford — petitioned by residents would prohibit “biased policing” or the enforcement of “federal civil immigration law.”

Under the new rules, police wouldn’t be able to stop or detain people solely because of their suspected immigration status. Officers also would be banned from holding people on federal “immigration detainers” or sharing immigration-related information unless as part of the investigation of a felony.

Supporters say the policy would help people of color and immigrants feel comfortable interacting with police in the Upper Valley, while police officials facing similar proposals in neighboring towns have expressed concern it could run counter to federal law.

Also on the warning are articles requesting $80,000 for the replacement of a bridge for the Brown Schoolhouse Road Trail extension over Charles Brown Brook and a request to install two rectangular rapid flashing beacons in the village.

Voting for municipal and school-related articles on the Norwich Town Meeting warning will take place from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 3, at Tracy Hall. The floor meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday, March 2, also at Tracy Hall.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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