Voters approved a contract and financing for $2.3 million in energy and capital improvements to municipal buildings Jan. 25 at a drive-in special town meeting at the Snow Bowl.

The drive-in meeting was the first of its kind for Camden's town government. The Snow Bowl parking lot was filled from one end to the other, with row after row of vehicles.

State COVID-19 rules still limit the number of attendees at indoor public gatherings. Since the pandemic began, Camden has not held an indoor town meeting.

With over 150 voting, the special town meeting had a high attendance rate.

Voter approval

Before entering the parking area, town staff gave residents in their vehicles large green voting cards. When it came time to vote for or against four articles, residents held their cards out of their vehicle windows so they could be seen by a number of town staff who did the counting.

After residents asked many questions over the period of an hour, the majority approved Article 2, by a vote of 131 to 34. The article authorizes Town Manager Audra Caler to execute a performance contract agreement with Siemens Industry, Inc. to  upgrade multiple public buildings, increase energy efficiency and reduce long-term energy demands and costs.

If residents had rejected Article 2, no other votes would have taken place. Afterwards, Articles 3 and 4 were passed.

Article 3 authorizes the town to enter into a financing agreement for a $2.3 million loan with Siemens. The term of the loan is 17 years, with an annual interest rate not to exceed 2.5%. Caler said actual interest rate is likely to be closer to 2%.

Article 4 allows $200,000 to be withdrawn from the town's unassigned fund to pay for up-front initial costs of the contract.

Voters also passed Article 5, a non-binding statement of agreement with goals and objectives laid out in the Maine Climate Council’s report and recommendations.

Prior to the vote Caler, Select Board Chairman Bob Falciani and board member Marc Ratner gave an overview of town government efforts to improve energy use over the past four years.

Caler initiated a project to convert of all of Camden's street lights to LED technology. When that was completed, a comprehensive review of town buildings began. Needed work was identified and discussed with numerous contractors. Then the town decided to seek interest from energy service companies. Siemens audited buildings to identify issues and solutions. The company finances energy and infrastructure improvements; bids work out; oversees contractors; and guarantees the total project cost, the new energy systems and energy savings.

Residents questions

Opera House Manager Dave Morrison, who was elected moderator of the meeting,  asked residents to flash their headlights if they wanted to ask a question, and then wait while staff brought over a wireless microphone. Sound was broadcast over FM 88.3.

Speakers had to state their names and addresses before asking questions. All who spoke were Camden residents.

One man identified himself as John Doe and would not give his address. Morrison did not allow him to speak. When the man asked if having to state name and address in order to speak is constitutional, Morrison said yes, and explained it is a state requirement.

The first question referred to a glossy flyer mailed to Camden residents over the previous weekend, urging them to vote no on the Siemens' contract.

The flyer implied that the contract is not competitive — is this true, Geoff Scott asked.

The information on the flyer is not true, Ratner said. There were only two energy service companies available in the region, and only Siemens submitted a bid, he said.

Residents including John Feeney and Brian Robinson asked if local licensed and bonded contractors bid for or were getting any of the work, and if there was a commitment to hire local contractors. Yes, was Falciani's response. Siemens has been and is bidding out the work, and local contractors have submitted bids, he said. He listed a number of local and Maine-based contractors.

Residents asked what the consequences would be if the contract with Siemens was voted down, and if it could be taken up again at a later time.

If the contract was voted down, it could be because "there are things included that are not necessary," such as the Snow Bowl, Barbara Nichols said. The town has been struggling for years over whether the costs of the ski area are worth it, she said.

Patty Feeney asked town officials to address the timing of the project, noting local businesses are closing, and it is a bad year. She asked if the vote to authorize the contract could exclude the geothermal system at the Snow Bowl, or if it was all or nothing.

Ratner confirmed the vote on the contract was up or down, all or nothing. Regarding the time of the vote, some of the town's buildings are in dire need, he said. He cited the failing heating and cooling system at the Camden Public Library. The entire library collection and historical documents are at risk if the system fails, he said. Ratner pointed out that town officials have been talking about how to address costly building problems for years.

Falciani said the cost of repairing and upgrading energy systems in municipal buildings would increase by more than $300,000, due to escalating construction costs, if the vote waited until the annual June town meeting.

Officials were spurred to call the special town meeting now, due to low interest rates, around 2%, that could not be guaranteed later in the year, Caler said. Siemens' approach would save the town over $1 million for needed building repairs and result in a 22% energy savings.

Residents including Elliott Thompson, Jonathan Beitler, and Bruce Peele questioned the contract's impact on town finances and officials' claims of savings.

Thompson asked for the impact on property taxes. The tax impact will add 7 cents to the mill rate, or around $25 to 28 dollars to the tax bill for an average property in Camden, officials said.

Caler talked about using $200,000 from the surplus fund to offset costs of the contract to residents in the first fiscal year, 2021-22. In 2023, an annual debt payment of $70,000 for a different project would be retired, she said, and the Camden Public Library will  pay over $20,000, from private fundraising, towards the town's annual $105,000 for the Siemen's contract. She likened the actual annual payment to around $17,000 for 16 years.

Bietler questioned that reasoning, saying the $70,000 in retired debt only made the payment seem lower. Caler agreed that the actual payment amount is $105,000 for 16 years.

Former Select Board member John French asked if the town would still use another $200,000 from surplus to offset property taxes for regular expenses, as is the usual practice at June town meeting. The budget has not yet been developed, "but it looks like we will do that," Caler said.

Peele questioned whether spending $2.3 million for $1 million in savings was a good deal, and asked about other benefits. Skip Bates asked if the claim of guaranteed energy savings will be audited annually to show actual savings.

The work on municipal buildings needs to be done regardless, Caler and other officials said. The Siemens' contract bundles the work with energy saving measures, Caler said.

There will be an annual accounting of the energy savings, according to Falciani. If energy savings fall below the amount guaranteed in the contract, the town is reimbursed. If savings exceed the contract target, the town is reimbursed. In addition, contract costs are set and guaranteed, and no change orders are allowed, he said.

Kate Bates asked if the town was leaving unexplored yet-to-be-determined subsidies from the new administration in Washington, D.C.

Caler responded she cannot see relying on federal or state programs for local infrastructure projects. The town could wait, but may be waiting a long time, she said.

At another point in the question period, Select Board member Taylor Benzie pointed out that the geothermal installation at the Snow Bowl qualifies for tax benefits.

The $544,000 geothermal system was also a sticking point for others who questioned spending more money on the Snow Bowl. Patty Feeney characterized these expenses as "nice to have," but not necessary.

Ratner, Falciani and others spoke about how this system brings Camden closer to carbon emission goals to which the town, state and Global Covenant of Mayors have committed. The system will supply power during four-seasons, Falciani said.

Robert Nichols asked about town reserves that typically pay for things like a new roof on the Opera House. The town has such reserves, but found costs to repair perpetual leaks at the Opera House eventually exceeded reserve funds, Caler said.

Pete Kalajian, long-time member of the town's Energy and Sustainability Committee said the Siemens project "represents a boots-on-the-ground approach to reducing energy use." There's always room for ideas and input to make this better, he said.

State Representative and Camden resident Vicki Doudera said has read the state's climate council report and regularly listens to discussions about climate change. She is very proud of the town for debating issues around the Siemen's contract, she said.

At the end of the meeting, residents held their green voting cards high as the count was taken on support of a non-binding article to recognize "the diverse challenges facing the region as a result of climate change, as well as the ambitious emissions reduction goals set by the state of Maine."

The article states the town of Camden is committed to working with the state to reduce emissions; create economic opportunity related to climate and energy transitions; prepare for impacts of climate change; and ensure those often left behind benefit from climate solutions by having access to opportunities and protection from threats.

A complete list of building energy and improvement projects can be viewed on the town of Camden website.