Sebago considers solar proposal at town meeting

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Sebago residents vote during the annual town meeting on Saturday, June 3. 

SEBAGO — At an otherwise sleepy annual Town Meeting, a debate about solar energy and retail marijuana energized those in attendance.

The Saturday, June 3, meeting drew a small crowd and minimal debate on agenda items, except for discussion dedicated to two topics: a potential solar array that could provide a new source of energy for town buildings, and a temporary ban on retail marijuana establishments and social clubs.

The longest discussion came on an article eventually passed to allow the town selectboard to enter into one or more agreements with ReVision Energy to install and draw power from a solar array on town property.

“This would basically take the money we spend now for power and apply it into a solar array,” said Selectman Phil Lowe, who noted that ReVision worked on a preliminary design and concept for the project on his recommendation.

The solar proposal from ReVision Energy is called a power purchase agreement, or PPA, a project where the renewable energy company would install a solar array on town property for no money down and then the town would buy electric power generated from the array for several years. After year six of the agreement, the town would have the option to buy the the entire array and not have to pay ReVision for the power moving forward.

A representative from ReVision, Johanna Sorrell, gave an overview of the project and took questions at the town meeting. A handout from ReVision explaining the potential agreement was also available.

The proposed project would put a 58.5 kilowatt solar array on the roof of the town’s salt shed.

According to ReVision, the solar panels would produce 70,930 kilowatt hours of power annually, which is just under the 71,952 kilowatt hours used at Sebago’s nine highest use meters. These solar PPA projects can only cover nine meters and are not allowed to go toward a town’s streetlights, Sorrell said.

Under the proposed PPA, the town would chose from several pricing options and would be paying between 11 cents and 15 cents per kilowatt hour. The town’s current electricity rate with Central Maine Power is slightly more than 12 cents, according to ReVision.

The estimated cost to buy the solar array outright after year six of the agreement would be somewhere between $57,014 and $71,267 depending on the electricity rate that the town might chose.

The feedback on the solar proposal from residents was positive, though several questions were raised, including about who would cover costs of repairs or replacement of panels.

Town Manager Jim Smith said that he questions the value of the project, but noted, “I still see the merit to moving forward with this, because there seems to be some real potential savings and an opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint, which should be everybody’s concern.”

Lowe emphasized that there will likely be a public hearing once the town has more numbers, and that the town will need to see if other companies can match ReVision’s proposal. He also said the solar vote at the town meeting essentially gives the selectboard the authority to “be the judges and go forward and seek out the best deal, or if the deal is viable.”

By approving a 180-day moratorium on retail marijuana establishments and social clubs, Sebago voters also joined several other towns in the Lakes Region that are delaying any potential retail marijuana regulations while the state legislature and agencies continue to look at how to implement the Marijuana Legalization Act passed by Maine voters in November 2016.

Current Town Clerk and Tax Collector Michele Bukoveckas, who will assume the role of Town Manager starting in July, said it was one of the smallest turnouts she’d ever seen at the annual Sebago Town Meeting last weekend.

Approximately 20-30 people attended the 9 a.m. meeting at the Sebago Town Hall. Twenty-seven warrant articles were ultimately passed by the voters, though three of those were amended at the meeting before being approved.

Two of the amendments made to the articles actually trimmed the yearly budget by $163,500 after residents voted to draw funds for hazardous waste disposal and several capital investment program items from the town’s undesignated fund balance instead.

Moderator Rich Ruhlin of Cornish joked that lowering the cost of warrant articles is something most voters could get behind.

“Everyone generally likes reductions in articles,” Ruhlin quipped.

The total town operating budget approved by voters at the meeting amounts to $2,011,903  an increase of $167,832 from the previous budget, or about nine percent.

Bukoveckas said in an email the current town property tax rate is $12.3 per $1,000assessment, and next year’s rate cannot be determined yet because assessors are still doing field work this summer.

One of the largest jumps in the budget was in administration costs, which rose by more than $60,000. Bukoveckas said that the increase comes from employee benefits for new hires. The budget also includes a $36,000 increase for roads.

Despite the low turnout, moderator Ruhlin was bullish on the importance of town meetings in general, calling them the “one of the purest forms of democracy.”

Ruhlin, who has also served as the moderator in Cornish town meetings, was able to rattle through most of the warrant articles quickly with a practiced efficiency.

The meeting provided an opportunity to recognize Smith, who is retiring after 10 years as town manager. Bukoveckas was chosen by the selectboard to replace Smith starting on July 1.

“Every one of the selectmen that have come and gone, or still here, have been very good people, and they have the best interests of the town at heart,” Smith, who lives in Parsonsfield, said after the meeting. “I’ve been more than pleased to work with them.”

“And Michele is going to make a good transition,” Smith said about his replacement. “I was going to say today that I wanted to take credit for her future success, because I’ve spent 10 years showing her what not to do,” said Smith with a laugh.

The only warrant article on the town meeting agenda that did not happen as scheduled was the swearing in of recently re-elected selectboard members Ann Farley and Tim Mayberry. That swearing in took place at the Tuesday, June 6 selectboard meeting instead.

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or mjunker@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

Sebago residents vote during the annual town meeting on Saturday, June 3.

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