Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Vernon Police Force: Super Sad True Town Meeting Story

Strafford Meeting House
Strafford Vermont
Super Sad Story True Town Meeting Story

I named this post after a novel I am reading: Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart. Using the novel name for the name of this post isn't as far-fetched as you might think. The Shteyngart novel is set in a high-tech but miserable future.  It is both a novel and a warning.

Similarly, this Super Sad True Town Meeting Story about Vernon is about the difficult Town Meetings in Vernon this year, and the difficult future of the town that is home to Vermont Yankee. (I write a little more about the Shteyngart book and Town Meetings at the end of this post.)

The Vernon Town Meeting, Round One

Vermont Yankee is located in Vernon Vermont, and pays approximately half the real-estate taxes paid in that town.  With the plant closing at the end of this year, Vernon has had to cut back drastically on its budget for future years.

In most towns in Vermont, budgets are decided upon and voted upon in Town Meeting.  Vermont towns have a certain level of choice about when they hold these meetings.  For example, Hartford (my town) used to hold Town Meeting on Town Meeting Day, which is a Tuesday.  However, many people can't get to a Tuesday meeting, and our town now holds its meeting on the Saturday before.

Vernon holds its Town Meeting in the evening. Apparently, the Vernon meeting usually goes for two evenings.  This year, Vernon has held three meetings...and counting. Town Meeting in Vernon is not over yet.

Town and Gown Marathon

Budgets for the town are voted on separately from school budgets.

On the first two days of Vernon Town Meeting, there were discussions of cutting back on the  town budget, with some focus on the costs of the police force.  Within the police budget, discussions centered on eliminating positions and cutting overtime.  Then, in a surprise move late on the second night, the people at Town Meeting voted to abolish the police force.  (Vote was 118 to 112, by paper ballot.)

Instead of having  town police, Vernon will contract for a small amount of police protection from other sources, such as state police.  The new budget allows about $40,000 for this protection, instead of a local police budget of about $300,000.

Meanwhile, the voters simply couldn't pass a school budget.  They turned down the proposed budget, and that whole thing is still in limbo.

After these two nights of town meetings, the voters held a third night of town meetings to deal with leftover stuff, such as changing pension plans and deciding what to do with the money that had been budgeted for new police cruisers.

I recommend some articles:

Police cruiser
New York City, of course, not Vernon
From Wikipedia
The second night of town meeting is well described in this VPR article: Vernon to Meet Again for Town Meeting Part 3

The police chief's view of town safety: Mike Faher at the Brattleboro Reformer writes: After voters make cuts, Vernon chief speaks out 

And, once again, Mike Faher at the Reformer on the third night of the meeting: Vernon town meeting wraps on third night.

But It's Not Over! A Fourth Town Meeting

First of all, the school budget remains in limbo, and something will have to be done about that in the future.

Second, abolishing the police force was a major action, and many people in the town are upset that it was done late at night by a narrow margin.  Townspeople mounted a successful petition drive to reconsider the budget. In other words, there will be a fourth Town Meeting.  As Faher of the Reformer writes: Vernon petitioners get new budget vote.  Quoting the Town Clerk from that article: "The Selectboard will get it, and they have to set a date for a special Town Meeting."

Selectboard Chair Patty O'Donnell notes that the entire budget can be discussed and amended at the new meeting.

Meanwhile, plant opponents spread their joy

The town of Vernon is in fiscal disarray, and people are meeting night after night to determine their future choices.

In contrast, some Vermont Yankee opponents are gleeful.  Here's an extensive quote from a letter to the editor in the Brattleboro Reformer.  The Reformer had the good sense to label this letter Schadenfreude?

Editor of the Reformer:

I’d like to welcome the residents and Town of Vernon back to the regular (unsubsidized) status of the rest of the smaller towns in Windham County. We have no town police departments and use the Windham County Sheriff’s Department out of Newfane and the Vermont State Police who have a barracks in West Brattleboro. .... I realize you’ve felt like you "had it good " for over 40 years and have gotten used to the lowest costs of living in Windham County. But you have also born the burden of potentially highly toxic environment with Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in your backyard. We’ll all feel safer with it closed..... You can stop complaining about having to now pay your way instead of having Vermont Yankee paying it for you. Welcome to the real world.


The novel: A few words about Super Sad True Love Story. I'm reading it, but I probably won't finish it.  I don't like to spend quite that much mental time in a miserable future.  Great title, though.

Town Meetings: Town meetings are a New England staple, and if you live in a part of the country where there are no town meetings, they look pretty good.  From my cynical perspective as someone who moved to New England, Town Meetings tend to put all town decisions into the hands of those who have the leisure to show up for these often-lengthy events.

Many towns (such as mine) are amending the meeting times to get more participation, or adding an Australian Ballot (pre-printed ballot) on a regular voting day for final approval of the budget.

Town meetings have great discussions, however, and I think New England has the best meeting moderators in the world. Our town moderators have skill, tact, and deep understanding of Robert's Rules of Order.


Robert said...

Meredith, one of the guys at the GBA answered my post. I can't figure it out. Since you are smarter on me, can you comment on it (either here or there) Its about the all electric induction cooktops. Thanks

by Dana Dorsett

+Vote up!-Vote down!In fact electricity demand growth in New England has been somewhere between flat and falling for a decade, and baseload demand (the fraction supplied by nukes) has been decidedly falling. Flat average demand with falling baseload demand has increased the peak-to-baseload ratio, but that is better met by distributed flexible resources than by inflexible impossible-to-ramp nukes:

A small me of the flatness to the overall demand has been the fraction of the grid-source that is not directly visible to the ISO-NE grid operator on a real-time basis, namely the distributed generation that is on the customer's side of the meter, such as Alex's PV grid array, or on-site heat/power cogeneration. This grid input shows up as lower demand in the aggregate, but where there are per-kwh production credits/RECs that can be marketed in the NEPOOL some of it gets accounted for after the fact.

With the increase in smart-metering offering visibility of the real time clearing cost of peak power to the customer and the financial incentive for the customer to shed load the peak power loads can also be cut significantly. This "demand response" both contractual/ manual or automated has been increasing in recent years, and has proved quite useful in maintaining grid stability during the much more significant summertime peaks, as in this snap-shot of ISO-NE demand from June 2010:

Robert said...

The post was so long, I have to do it in 2 comments here.

Demand-response nega-watts are the grid-equivalent of a rapid response peaking power generator, but has extremely small capitalization costs, and no transmission upgrade costs.

In short the answer to "Don't you people need all the electricity you can get?", is a decided no, the ISO-NE grid doesn't need all the electricity it can get. The growth in renewables on both sides of the meter as well as the more flexible combined cycle gas plants can MORE than cover any baseload shortfalls from the Vermont Yankee closing. The lifecycle per-kwh cost of distributed solar at 2012 prices was already at par with just the fuel costs of legacy nukes, and is well below just the fueling costs at 2014 PV pricing. Vermont Yankee has been producing on the order of~4% of all kwh going onto the ISO-NE grid in recent years. The installed capacity of PV (on both sides of the meter) is doubling about every 2 years in New England, (the stated of MA doubled it's cumulative capacity in 2013 alone: and even considering the smaller capacity-factor of PV compared to nukes, new-PV is destined to reach the output-equivalent of building a Vermont Yankee every year before tapering off. The cost of that power will be below that of Vermont Yankee, and that is just part of the rationale for why keeping it open would be financial folly for both Entergy (the owner/operator) and the regional customer base.

In the 5 year time frame beginning Q1 2013, between Vermont Yankee and two large legacy coal plant retirements in MA the ISO-NE region will be retiring about 1.4 gigawatts of baseload generation, but in the same time frame will be adding about 1.2 gigawatts of new power generation, about half of it from combined-cycle gas, and a third of it from wind power (Cape Wind being a big chunk of the wind fraction.) Dispatchable biomass baseload power is another significant (and growing) fraction. The new-PV fraction is likely to beat both new-wind and new-gas for the new-capacity in the following five years, since it becomes simply cheaper than other generation sources for the utility operator, and well below retail on the customer's side of the meter. There's little question that PV would be able to cost-effectively supply more than 25% of all power in the ISO-NE with low-to-negative cost to transmission infrastructure costs, while the infrastructure costs for adding more combined cycle gas may inhibit it's growth going forward, and may prove more expensive than more-PV + grid-storage solutions for new generation sooner than currently assumed, which would increase the market share of renewables on new generation to well above it's current~50% status in the region.

Meredith Angwin said...


Their comment was long because obfuscation is almost always lengthy. As in the saying" If you can't blind them with brilliance, baffle them with BS." That's what the Green Building group is doing.

Okay..they are installing a kitchen and it needs a stove and oven. So they have to choose electric, gas or maybe a wood stove. Very few people want to install a wood stove for daily cooking. It's a royal pain to get the temperatures right for cooking, baking, etc. So, they have to choose between electric and gas.

Gas is a fossil fuel, but some electric is made with renewables. So..electric is greener. They choose electric.

Their lengthy comment is a big justification for "new electric will mostly be renewable fired." They are honest enough to say that half of any new electric will be gas-fired...but that is actually not quite the case. It will be more than half. Is Cape Wind coming on-line soon? I don't think so. Will rooftop solar provide the power to cook dinner on a dark night? No, the grid backup (gas, oil, nuclear, coal, hydro, etc) will provide that backup power.

As with so many of these things, the statements come thick and fast and I would have to spend a long time dis-entangling and refuting many of them. But that is the general gist of it. Electric is greener because it is renewable.

Thank you for following up on this!

Robert said...

Meredith, do you think a couple of years from now there Will be brownouts/blackouts/asked to voluntarily conserve a lot at times? I would think a lot of businesses would want VY for the electricity and I don't just mean hairdressers. I read that IBM is a major employer and doesn't it take a lot of power to make computer chips? What are ski areas going to do if they cannot run the powerful "synchronous" motors for the chair lifts? Those motors are sensitive to the 60 Hz too. Where are the businesses that cannot run on solar panels?
Oh, I don't blame you for not wanting to answer Dana Dorsett where do his answers come from?

I wonder, have you ever "duked it out" with your friend Arnie?