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Hall commissioners vote down energy contracts
Financial skepticism causes board to deny contracts
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How the Hall County Board of Commissioners voted

Siemens — motion to approve contract:
Scott Gibbs: No
Craig Lutz: Yes
Richard Mecum: No
Billy Powell: Yes
Jeff Stowe: No

Pepco — motion to deny contract
Scott Gibbs: Yes
Craig Lutz: No
Richard Mecum: Yes
Billy Powell: Yes
Jeff Stowe: Yes

After months of inquiry and weeks of controversial debate, the Hall County Board of Commissioners on Thursday voted down two proposed energy-efficiency contracts with Siemens and Pepco Energy Services.

In the run-up to the vote, shifting financial estimates and skepticism about purported savings began to turn the tide against the projects, which called for lighting and water efficiency upgrades at county buildings, as well as converting sheriff’s office patrol cars and other county vehicles from diesel and gasoline to compressed natural gas.

The Siemens contract, which initially called for $6.6 million in costs with an estimated $9 million in savings over 15 years, appeared to have the best chance of receiving the board’s approval.

Hoping to sway favor and alleviate concerns, Commissioner Billy Powell spearheaded the charge to reduce costs and the payback period, first proposing a nearly $3 million deal before adjusting it down once more on Thursday to about $2.1 million.

Commissioner Craig Lutz was on board from the start. He said he supported Siemens’ initial proposal, adding the upgrades were necessary and the estimated savings in utility costs warranted proceeding with the contract.

Two weeks ago, it appeared Commissioner Jeff Stowe was ready to side with them, providing the third vote needed for passage. Meanwhile, it became evident that Chairman Richard Mecum and Commissioner Scott Gibbs were leaning against the contract, citing concerns about costs and sustainability.

On Thursday, however, Stowe questioned the math Powell had used to arrive at the latest cost estimate. He said a proposal to cut out lighting retrofits that had longer than a 10-year payback on savings, as well as removing building envelope improvements, did not add up.

“It looks like the bulk of the items are greater than 10 years,” Stowe said, adding that some payback periods stretched into hundreds of years.

Ultimately, the board voted 3-2 to deny Powell’s motion to approve the contract.

Both Mecum and Gibbs said efficiency upgrades in county buildings might still be done using both in-house and hired hands.

“I’d like to see it put out to a competitive bid,” Gibbs said.

Meanwhile, Pepco made a final attempt to garner favor when it showed off a few cars at the Hall County Government Center that run on compressed natural gas.

The company’s $20 million proposal — with an estimated savings of $39 million over 15 years — to capture natural gas at local landfills for use in county vehicles, however, was met with suspicion by several commissioners who questioned whether the proposed technology was as advanced as had been portrayed.

“If we want to roll the dice, let’s take $20 million to Vegas and put it on black and see what happens,” Stowe said. “I don’t want to do that with taxpayer money.”

Moreover, approval of the Pepco contract hinged almost exclusively on the backing of Sheriff Gerald Couch.

But Couch, after researching similar programs across the nation where compressed natural gas was used in patrol vehicles, wasn’t ready to hop on board just yet.

“All the concerns that I had and my staff had as it applied to law enforcement vehicles, they had encountered those very problems,” Couch said. “The technology may be there in several years, but it’s just not here now. It was not a cost-effective measure, and I will never do anything to gamble the taxpayer’s money in such a fashion.”

Lutz urged the board to hold off on a vote for now, adding that new information or research might change a few minds.

“We still have a couple weeks before we have to make a payment on this,” he said. “It’s not like we don’t have time. So I don’t know why the urgency, at this particular point, to deny it.”

Though Lutz received a $1,000 contribution for his Georgia Public Service Commission campaign late last year from a sales representative at Pepco, he said no conflict of interest existed because the donor no longer worked for the company.

Lutz said the Pepco contract was important for reducing long-term fuel and energy costs, adding the county spends about $2.4 million a year on petroleum for its vehicles.

But the board disagreed, voting 4-1 to deny the contract.

“I think we’re getting close,” Stowe said, adding the technology might be viable in a few years.

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