Ferrisburgh votes to become a Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) district

FERRISBURGH — While the Ferrisburgh selectboard on June 5 considered how to put in place a complex residential energy-efficiency program narrowly backed in March by town residents, the town’s energy committee chairman said a few homeowners are already interested in signing on.
At town meeting, residents voted, 50-49, that Ferrisburgh should become a Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) district.
Homeowners in a Vermont PACE district can qualify for long-term loans for energy improvements — including insulation; more efficient hot-water heaters, wood or pellet stoves or even furnaces; and possibly solar equipment. Because those loans may run for up to 20 years, monthly payments can be equal to or less than the energy savings realized.
Banks will only make such long-term loans, however, if they are essentially tax liens on properties. That’s where towns come in, Efficiency Vermont program manager Carol Weston told the Ferrisburgh selectboard on June 5.
“The town is the only authority in Vermont that can collect taxes and assessments on a property,” Weston said.
About three dozen Vermont towns (including Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Monkton and Weybridge) are now PACE districts, and most are looking to Efficiency Vermont to run the program for them.
If Ferrisburgh does so, the town’s only duty would be to collect delinquent payments if they occur, said Bob McNary, chairman of Ferrisburgh’s energy committee. 
“The only time the town is involved is trying to collect,” said McNary, who has been lobbying for PACE for several years.
Some members of the selectboard — not all shared McNary’s enthusiasm — said they were concerned that collecting would mean extra work for the town’s delinquent tax collector.
Ferrisburgh Town Clerk Chet Hawkins, who also wears that hat, said his reservations about PACE do not include collecting delinquent payments. 
Hawkins said someone who goes through the PACE qualifying process, which includes standards for homeowner equity and debt load, is not likely to default.
“I would say a person that involved in their home is not going to let it go into a tax sale,” he said.
Overall, Hawkins said he has to threaten tax sales for four or five homes a year out of 906 homes, or about 0.05 percent.
McNary hopes 100 or more Ferrisburgh homeowners might sign up for PACE in the next decade.
McNary believes the residents most likely to benefit are those who could not easily refinance — possibly seniors who own older homes and have equity, but not necessarily huge annual incomes.
“There are many people … who have been in their homes for many decades who could take advantage of this program to make their homes much more energy efficient and make life much more pleasant for them,” McNary said.
McNary said several people have spoken to members of the committee about the program about the steps to take. The first move is almost certainly an energy audit, he said, at a cost of $300 to $450. He expected most PACE loans to range from $5,000 to $8,500.
That cost and application fees can be rolled into the loan, he said. One possible risk to a homeowner is that the energy audit would be non-refundable if the homeowner did not end up in the program, but McNary said the audit should pay for itself regardless.
“Even if you didn’t qualify, certainly this would be information that would be invaluable to you anyway,” he said.
Efficiency Vermont has set a deadline of Aug. 1 for towns to sign with the agency as their PACE manager, and then will start accepting homeowner applications soon afterward.
“They can call us at any time,” Weston said. “Basically on Aug. 1 we’ll be ready to work with customers.”
Weston may be reached at [email protected]; more information is available at www.effeciencyvermont.com.
Still, Ferrisburgh selectboard members said on June 5 they were not yet ready to sign with Efficiency Vermont.
“What is the benefit to the town to do this?” asked Selectman Jack DeVos.
“The benefit is to the residents,” Weston answered.
Board members, including board chairwoman Loretta Lawrence, were also unclear on program details.
“Where is the money coming from and where is it raised and administered?” Lawrence asked.
Weston acknowledged that some details are still being worked out, but that ultimately “a bank or group of banks” would serve as a “credit facility” to make the loans.  
If there were a default, she said, the town would be made whole by the penalties it collected for late payments, by an annual $50 fee collected on each loan, and from a $1 million “loan loss reserve fund” created by the Legislature that serves as the linchpin of the program.
Weston told the selectboard that reserve fund would support $20 million of PACE loans in the first year.
Energy Efficiency official Kelly Lucci explained the $20 million cap in an email: “The Energy Act of 2011 (H.56) had several provisions relating to PACE, including the requirement that a loss reserve fund be established, amounting to 5% of PACE assessments in a given year. For 2012, there has been $1M in funding set aside for the reserve fund. Since $1M is 5% of $20M, the total amount of assessments that can be made through PACE this year is effectively ‘capped’ at $20M.”
Weston acknowledged the PACE program is unusual and said she understood the selectboard’s hesitancy: Only Vermont among the 50 states allows homeowners to participate.
“It’s different. It’s new. There’s no doubt about it,” Weston said.
But she urged the selectboard to act.
“If you don’t adopt a program, no one in this town can apply,” she said.
Lawrence said on Thursday there was still a “fair amount” of uncertainty, but said that Weston brought some clarity to last week’s meeting. The board will sit down again at its next meeting and look at the contract language, and Lawrence believes at some point before August the town will “go forward” with Efficiency Vermont.
“Our discussion was around the agreement. Do we need to rework the language?” she said.
McNary said he expects the board to act, and said interested homeowners should contact him or another member of the town energy committee: Deb Healy, Richard Hiscock, Ralph Shepard or Peter Markowski.
“Start making your plans now,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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