Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Green night turns red with embarrassment for council

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
January 23, 2008

VERNON - Sitting in their emerald-colored leather executive chairs, the mayor and Town Council on Tuesday pushed forward a green agenda - until it came time to buy the Fire Department a new sport utility vehicle. Then the environment-friendly discussion turned red.

After a number of failed starts, Republican Mayor Jason L. McCoy finally got his hybrid vehicle tax exemption adopted in a party-line vote of 7 to 4, with minority Democrats voting against the measure.

The new ordinance, which goes into effect for the 2009 grand list and sunsets in 2010 if not readopted, exempts $1,000 of a vehicle's value from property tax, giving owners a net savings of $32.91 based on the current tax rate.

Any vehicle that gets at least 40 mpg and was purchased on or after Jan. 1, or any hybrid passenger vehicle bought between Oct. 1, 2004 and Oct. 1, 2008, is eligible for the exemption.

McCoy and Republicans hope the ordinance will spark a reduction locally of demand for foreign oil. They have been pushing for the ordinance's adoption since last summer, postponing votes when members were absent, until the necessary seven were seated at the council table Tuesday night.

Democrats have been against the ordinance from the beginning, saying only higher-income residents can afford hybrid vehicles, and the ordinance shifts the tax burden to the poor as a result.

"Thirty dollars is not enough of an incentive to get people to buy" hybrids, Democrat Michael Winkler said. "It's a waste of Vernon taxpayer money."

Bipartisan effort was evident later in the meeting, however, as McCoy and Democratic Councilwoman Marie Herbst made plans to install a committee named "Go Green Go Vernon" that would keep residents informed of energy saving tips during periodic "Green Week" celebrations.

Council members, who have said they eventually want to switch over all town-owned cars to greener vehicles, also are looking to update the property tax exemption for those who install solar energy or other alternative heating and cooling systems in their homes.

But green practices and good will fell by the wayside an hour later when Fire Chief William Call requested $32,000 to purchase a Ford Expedition to replace the department's aging command vehicle.

Call said the Fire Department needs a four-wheel drive vehicle with adequate space to cart necessary equipment to replace the existing Crown Victoria that is nearing 90,000 miles on the odometer.

The new SUV would allow for better mobility during inclement weather and access to rural or wooded locations, Call said.

All council members agreed that the department needed a new command vehicle. But in light of earlier green initiatives, some wanted a more environmentally friendly alternative.

Call said he researched the issue, and found that current hybrid vehicles did not possess the towing capacity of gas counterparts. The command vehicle may have to tow the department's all-terrain vehicle, which can exceed 7,000 pounds, Call said, adding that a hybrid powered part-time by a fuel cell battery can pull only 1,000 pounds.

Power aside, space is also an issue in most alternative fuel vehicles, Call said as he passed around pictures of tool-filled emergency vehicles and cramped cargo quarters of hybrids.

Call said General Motors is the only car manufacturer that sells an alternative fuel, full-size SUV that can handle the department's demands, but the cost is upwards of $57,000.

A handful of council members were not swayed, however.

"The position we're taking as a council is to not make the big oil companies any richer than we have to," McCoy said.

"I think we need to come up with a better alternative that fits our pocketbook and philosophy of 'Go Green Go Vernon,'" Anderson added.

"I have no objection to going green, but when you consider torque and the current state of batteries, I think we have to go gas for the short term, at least on emergency vehicles," Winkler said.

The council voted 9-3 to appropriate money for the gas version, with Anderson, Diane Wheelock, and Peggy Jackle voting against it.

©Journal Inquirer 2008