Selectmen Support Green Vehicle Policy But Stall Purchase

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Municipal Finance

Courtesy Mitsubishi Motors.

HARWICH — In an effort to implement the Green Communities program approved by town meeting in May, selectmen approved the initial reading of a fuel efficiency vehicle replacement policy Monday, but stalled when the administration sought to put the first vehicle on the road.

Town meeting adopted the Stretch Energy Code and put in place a bylaw for large scale ground mounted photovoltaic arrays in May, said Town Administrator Christopher Clark, two of the five criteria the town must meet to become a Green Community.

On Monday night, selectmen were asked to approve the first reading of a policy on fuel efficient vehicle replacements. The board had no concerns with the policy, but that wasn't the case when it came to the lease of a hybrid vehicle for use by the community development department.

Selectman Michael MacAskill challenged the lease, pointing out no money for it was approved by the board or in town meeting. He acknowledged that the town administrator has the authority to issues contracts for less than $50,000. But MacAskill said selectmen set a 2 percent spending cap in its budget message and Clark's budget came in with a 6.7 percent increase. He questioned why the town administrator could not find the money in the community development department budget back then but can do so now.

Assistant Town Administrator Evan Melillo, who has done extensive work with green vehicle replacement in other communities, said the department is in need of a new vehicle. Many of the town inspection departments use retired police cruisers, heavy fuel users with a lot of mileage. He said interim assistant town administrator Robert Lawton did a study on the vehicles which culminated with the recommendation to acquire the more fuel-efficient vehicle.

The vehicle proposed is a Mitsubishi Outlander hybrid that gets 25 miles per gallon with gas and 74 mpg with electricity. It is a full size SUV with all-wheel drive, which is important for inspectors in the building, conservation and health departments.

The plan is for the town to lease the vehicle for a three-year period. The cost would be $17,000 a year but a federal tax credit applied to the purchase reduces it to $12,000. Melillo called the hybrid the number one selling vehicle in the world.

He and Clark pointed out there are five inspectors in the department that have access to one vehicle. That creates scheduling issues, and inspectors often have to use their own vehicles to conduct town business. When that happens the inspectors get paid mileage of 54.5 cents per mile. The savings to the town would offset some of the lease costs and the reduced use of fuel would provide additional savings. Clark said they saw the opportunity to “kick start” the green program.

“I don't see enough justification for the plug-in, it's part of the show, it's justification rather than a real need. Why add a green vehicle if we don't need it? I don't see it adding to the efficiency and operation of the town,” Selectman Larry Ballantine said.

With concerns expressed that the town was increasing its vehicle fleet, Clark said he would eliminate one of the gas-consuming Crown Victoria's. He said the vehicle replacement program will be placed on the capital plan over a five-year period to comply with the program. Melillo said 16 of the town's 171 vehicles are eligible for the $5,000 federal tax credit.

MacAskill said the town voted for the Green Communities, but the funding should have been in the budget. “We're doing things backward,” MacAskill said. “I'm going to object to the way we did this. In my opinion it's a slap in the taxpayers face.”

Selectman Ed McManus said he purchased a fuel efficient vehicle five years ago and the savings on fuel has paid for the cost of car. There is additional savings in reducing pollution coming out of the fuel pipe, he added.

“Ed, we don't know what any of this costs,” MacAskill said, citing insurance and excise taxes.

Selectmen agreed they need a complete assessment of costs related to the older, gas-consuming vehicles and additional costs related to the new green vehicle. The board hopes to have the answers at its July 23 meeting.