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Secret ballot for disputed green energy loans
BUCKFIELD — A battle over green home loans will be determined by secret ballot, the Buckfield Board of Selectmen decided on Tuesday.
The decision followed months of wrangling over how the matter could be brought before the town's voters, a discussion precipitated by Buckfield's refusal to join other towns in Maine by adopting a Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) ordinance.
Resident Joyce Hartson, an opponent of the measure, requested a secret ballot during a late-April meeting, while supporters of the program wanted an open vote.
The ordinance allows residents to qualify for low-interest home loans that can be used to improve energy-efficiency.
In participating municipalities, homeowners can get PACE financing with a fixed interest rate of 4.99 percent and a term of up to 15 years, with the financing amount ranging from $6,500 to $15,000.
In April, Town Manager Glen Holmes reported that the program is available, should Buckfield decide to take advantage of it.
"That program is now funded," Glen Holmes. "Loans are now able to be applied for and made under that program. If it's something we still want to do, then yes, the PACE ordinance would move forward, whether it's during an open town meeting or during a secret ballot."
Voters in Buckfield rejected the measure during the November election by a vote of 475 to 351.
Hartson said that a secret ballot, held in conjunction with the selectman election, would draw more voters, and would therefore more closely represent the high level of participation that took place in November.
"I'm requesting that it be a secret ballot and I could find a number of people [who would say the same]," said Hartson. "I'm basing that on 900 and some people [who] voted on the secret ballot."
After the November vote, Representative Terry Hayes, a member of Buckfield's Green Energy Team, said that she felt that the team had failed in educating voters about the facts of the program.
Team members favored an open vote, which would have allowed them to answer questions about the program during a public discussion.
During public discussions at board meetings, residents have offered no tangible reasons for opposing the measure, other than a general dislike of ordinances.
In April 2010, Maine received $30 million in federal funding to support the program. The money was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009.
An estimated 64 Maine communities have approved PACE ordinances, which means that nearly half of the state's residents can take advantage of the program.
Falmouth, Gray, Lewiston, Auburn, Lisbon, Portland, Mechanic Falls, and Waterville are among the towns that have approved the ordinance.
Representatives of Efficiency Maine, which is helping to administer the program, said that they were not aware of any municipalities that have rejected the ordinance.
According to public information on the program, PACE financing "effectively allows property owners to borrow money to pay for energy improvements. The amount borrowed [which is an average of $8,000] is typically repaid via a special assessment on the property over a period of years."
The lowered energy bills typically pay for the improvements in about seven years.
When the vote failed in November, at the request of the Buckfield Energy Team, which has set a goal of improving the energy-efficiency of 100 local homes, town leaders considered bringing the measure up earlier this spring at a special town meeting.
A special town meeting would have allowed for some energy projects to be completed before summer brought warmer temperatures.
However, a vocal group of citizens spoke against the measure, calling it an end-run around the democratic process, and town leaders agreed to instead bring it up at the annual town meeting.