CARBONDALE — Town trustees, eager to find new ways to encourage local residents to make more use of alternative energy technologies and energy conservation tactics, are taking a look at the idea of an “energy tax” or utility fee assessed against local consumers.
Details of the proposed new tax are far from worked out, and the trustees have been in talks with representatives of the Community Office of Resource Efficiency (CORE) and the Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER) about how the tax might work and how it might provide a permanent funding source for the town’s efforts to reduce Carbondale’s “carbon footprint.”
“Consistent funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects would greatly aid the town in achieving their carbon reduction goals set forth in their climate action plan,” wrote Lucy Kessler, outreach and programs coordinator for CORE, in an email on Dec. 24. “CORE is looking forward to collaborating with CLEER, the board of trustees and the Carbondale community to identify a consistent revenue source that would support a clean energy fund for the town.”
But the effort is just getting started, town officials said.
Secure Funding source
“Our general fund can’t continue to fund energy programming at its current level.” Town Manager Jay Harrington explained in a telephone interview on Tuesday, noting that the town plans to spend about $115,000 on energy-related programming next year. He said there is not really an idea yet as to how much money the town would need to collect from a fee or a tax.
Town officials have been talking about the need for a permanent source of funding for its energy programs for a couple of years, and the current effort is the latest version of that search. Harrington said there were plans for a January work session of the trustees and staff, to hammer out the details of a ballot question for April.
But that has been put on hold for now as the trustees, consultants and staff turn their sights toward a November ballot question.
“Clearly a general sales tax, that applies to all of us for all goods, is fair game,” town attorney Mark Hamilton told the trustees at a Dec. 17 meeting. Hamilton had been exploring the various ways such a fee or tax might be created and applied, and will continue to do so, said Harrington.
Another potential idea for creating a permanent funding source, Hamilton said, is to place a fee on utility bills sent out to Carbondale customers.
Mayor Stacey Bernot, after listening to Hamilton’s presentation, emphasized that the main goal is the long-term funding source for the town’s energy conservation efforts, and stressed that the idea of a tax on energy consumption needs much more discussion among the trustees.
And her first conclusion, she said, was that a proposal to have the energy tax on the April 2014 municipal election ballot might not work out because the ballot language for that election would need to be finished by late January.
That, she said, would not be enough time to mount an education campaign aimed at drumming up community-wide support for the idea.
“I don’t want to throw stuff out there and not have it stick,” she told her fellow trustees.
Trustee Frosty Merriott agreed, noting, “To me, one of the most important things is to get the public behind it.”
He suggested it might be a more appropriate question for the voters in the general election in November 2014.
Chiming in that he prefers, at least at first blush, the idea of attaching the funding source to a fee on utility bills, Trustee Allyn Harvey added, “I’m a little leery about just imposing a fee” and urged the town government to fully explore the idea with community meetings and outreach.
Regardless of his hesitation, he concluded, “I think a tax would be pushing us toward those 2020 goals,” a reference to the town’s energy, economic and climate protection goals. One of the primary goals is for the community to obtain at least 30 percent of its energy for heating and electricity from renewable sources by that year.
“April’s tough,” agreed Trustee Pam Zentmyer, who maintained that the town needs a much clearer idea of where any revenues from such a program would fit into the town’s budget, how that money would be used and other such considerations. She agreed with Merriott’s suggestion of using energy-impact mitigation fees from the state as a way to offset the effects of a tax or a fee on residents.
She also said the town should explore other options than strictly the tax or fee idea as a permanent funding source for the town’s energy-conservation program.
But Trustee Elizabeth Murphy, who also has said she favors a fee on utility uses, leaned toward an April election for the question, explaining “I’d just be hesitant to wait until November, to put it off.”
Others on the board, however, opted for the November election to give more time to work on it, though Trustee John Foulkrod questioned the very idea.
“Is it our job to tax the people on their energy consumption, in an attempt to get them to reduce it?” he asked at the Dec. 17 meeting.
“Why don’t you ask people first to volunteer some money” then try the tax or fee if the volunteer effort fizzles? Foulkrod continued.
The remainder of the trustees backed the concept, though, and the mayor declared at the end of the discussion, “I like the idea of Carbondale taking this on, to be a leader.”