(I apologize for the length of this post, but it's a complicated topic, so I hope you will bear with me despite its length)
Installation of an electric vehicle charging station at the Scotland Public Library is under way. The station comes to us through a state/Eversource program that provides municipalities with 100 percent of the installation costs and 50 percent of the cost of the chargers. The purpose of this program is to build out the supply network for electric vehicles by placing them in parking lots where people can plug in for short periods of time, just as you might plug in your phone whenever possible in order to keep the battery charged. The charger is capable of providing approximately 30 miles of driving for every hour of charging. At our current electric rate, the cost per hour of charging is approximately $2.60. The costs will not be metered separately by Eversource, but the device will track use.
At the June 28th Board of Selectmen meeting, we discussed whether or not to require payment from people using the charger. We have three choices: provide the service without charge, pass the actual cost along to the consumer, or mark up the cost to generate revenue for the town. My suggestion was to provide the service for free until it costs the town $1,000—worth approximately 400 hours of charging—and then make a final decision based on patterns of use and other data gathered by the device. We did not take a vote, but in the discussion that followed, it was clear that two of the selectmen—Chris Demorit and me—were in favor of that option, and the third—Wendy Sears—was opposed.
Selectman Sears provided a series of comments from members of the Republican Town Committee, whose opinions she had solicited. The comments are part of the record of the meeting, but I would summarize by saying that they were uniformly and strongly opposed to the idea of making the service free, mostly on the grounds that providing a service that benefits a few people, while most others are paying for gasoline, is unfair to taxpayers. Some were concerned that people could take advantage of the service by plugging their cars in for hours at a time. Two citizens in attendance largely agreed with these sentiments, and also worried about vandalism of the device.
I think this analysis is understandable in many ways. Only a very few people can take advantage of the chargers, so cost-free charging violates our sense of fairness. Short of turning off the device when the library is closed, there is no way to stop people from abusing the system. It promotes a technology that many people dislike. It would be a subsidy unavailable to people with nonelectric vehicles, and vandalism is always a possibility. However, I would point out that the town already provides many services that benefit a few, can be abused, are subject to vandalism, and reflect values upon which we disagree. Here’s a brief list of what we have spent recently on services that meet most or all of that description. (Other than the last two items, these are annual costs, as of the 2023-24 budget. The number in parentheses is the cost averaged across our 625 households.)
· $4.4 million to educate approximately 150 students from about 110 of the 625 households in town. ($7,000)
· $175,000 to support paid staff at the firehouse who respond to fewer than four calls per week in Scotland (2021 statistics; additional calls are made to other towns under mutual aid pacts). ($280)
· $114,000 to operate a transfer station. (The $25 permits we sell do not begin to cover the costs, and those who do not use the station pay significantly more than that for garbage collection.) ($182)
· $60,000 to support a library. ($96)
· $17,500 to social service agencies such as Dial-a-Ride and Access Agency. ($28)
· Approximately $1300 for street lighting ($2)
· $1,800 to maintain portable toilets at Bowers Park and the Grange Hall—discontinued (due to vandalism), but about to be restored. ($2.88)
· $1,900 to provide a vegetative barrier to owners of a single home to screen a town-owned building they felt reduced their property values. ($3)
· $1,200 to remove a tree from the roof of a home belonging to someone who could not afford it. ($2)
I could go on, but you get the point: taxpayer dollars are used routinely to benefit a few people and in ways that reflect values about which people disagree. In fact, I’d say that’s more the rule than the exception. I don’t think this is a bad thing. The law requires us to provide schools and emergency services, but the law in turn reflects an agreement to take care of each other, and so do the services we provide at our option, like libraries and street lights. They grow out of virtues like generosity and kindness, and a consideration of the overall effects of our spending on the society at large. We educate our kids because of a belief the world is improved if people are educated. We staff the firehouse with capable and certified people and pay for Dial-a-Ride because of a belief that we are all better off if we take collective action to reduce suffering. We preserve a private viewscape or remove a tree from a private home because we want to support our neighbors. And we do these things despite the fact that only a few benefit, and that some might exploit our generosity, by, say, using the ambulance as a personal transportation service.
In general, people don’t notice the inequitable distribution of taxpayer money until something new comes along. Electric vehicles are something new, and like many new things, they are controversial. They are certainly less than perfect solutions to the problems of climate change and dependence on fossil fuels. They require large amounts of resources to produce, they exploit impoverished nations’ natural resources, they are expensive to buy, the electric grid is not ready for them, and (my personal peeve) they don’t purr like a V-8. But they do work, they do result in a net reduction in carbon emissions and less dependence on foreign oil, and they will get cheaper as the charging grid gets built out. And I’m sure you will soon be able to download the sound of a 351 Mustang or a 396 Camaro and play it through your Chevy Volt’s external speakers.
That’s why the Federal and State governments are subsidizing electric vehicles with tax breaks and incentive programs like the one we’re participating in: because we have to do something before the entire planet catches fire. Providing $1,000 worth of free electricity to EV owners who use the Scotland Public Library is an infinitesimally small contribution, but to the extent that it builds confidence that charging stations are plentiful and contributes to people’s willingness to forego the pleasures of the internal combustion engine, it's an important one. T
That's why I think it’s a good idea to provide the service, at least at the outset. It’s a gesture of good will at least as legitimate and important as some of the other services we use taxpayer dollars to provide.
I’d very much like to hear what you think about this. Ultimately, of course, it’s a BOS decision, and we’ll make it before we turn on the device. But public input is important, and so I’m asking that you let me know what you think we should do. As always, email is best: email@example.com
. And look for the item on the upcoming BOS agendas, which almost always include an audience for citizens.