City of Monticello to return donated solar panels

by David Boyle
News Director
Members of the Monticello City Council voted to send back solar panel donations, approved repairs of airport and water systems, and approved a zone change at their January 23 meeting.
At their latest meeting, members of the council voted to return a donation of 180 solar panels years after previous city administration accepted the donation without council approval.
At their January 23 meeting, members of the council held a discussion on the solar panel project. The item returned to the council agenda for the first time since August, 2023 after a split 2-1 vote approved further exploration of the possibility of using the donated panels to supplement power usage at the city pool.
At the August meeting, City Manager Kaeden Kulow explained that the cost to implement the solar installation on land near the city pool would total an estimated $200,000. 
The City of Monticello received a donation from renewable energy company AES for the project. AES operates projects in the West, including the Latigo Wind Park north of Monticello.
The AES donation included solar panels, an inverter, and the labor for the installation as part of an education program, estimated to cover $100,000 or about half of the project.
The donation was received years ago, by previous administration without council approval.
Kulow shared that the city would pay to install the panels, including concrete, fencing and labor for electrical to amount to an estimated $100,000.
Speaking with Empire Electric in August, city staff estimated annual savings of $1,000 a month on the pool energy bill. If savings held at that amount, the city would recoup the $100,000 infrastructure investment in 100 months or a little over 8 years.
An American Solar representative explained in August that the panels are warranted for 25 years but could last up to 35 years. The inverter would last 10 to 15 years and would need to be replaced. They currently cost from $6,000 to $8,000.
At their January meeting, Kulow explained the city found they could qualify for an incentive program to install the solar system. Kulow asked council for additional time as he said the program could give the city their return back within a year.
Kulow said that it involved looking into tax law to see how a city qualifies vs. a business or residential entity.
Mayor Bayley Hedglin said understanding the tax credit would be key to making a decision. “We don’t have that answer yet and to me that’s a very critical part of this discussion and this decision.
“I think it would behoove us to table until the next meeting to give time.”
City council member George Rice asked how much more time should the city administration spend on the project.
“This is not the thing this is promising to be. I think we ought to stop wasting city administration time on chasing this.”
Council member Kirk Crowley responded “If it’s a waste, I don’t want to do it, but I think there’s enough information that’s come to light recently that it’s worth taking a little bit more time and making sure we’ve covered the bases.”
Rice noted that the project is not in the city’s master plan as a short or long-term goal.
“We have project after project lined up. We have building after building that’s needing attention. Our list far outweighs our purse on this matter. All of a sudden we have someone dangling this carrot with a lot of promises to it and it’s sidetracking us from what we need to be focused on.”
Rice noted the needs of other buildings in town, including the visitor center.
Crowley said he tends to agree, “but if there’s something out there that’s come to light that we can recoup our investment then we really haven’t lost much and if we can show it’s a benefit or at worst a break-even scenario then I think it’s worth looking at.”
Rice said the city gets involved in too many projects without seeing them to completion and without long-term care including scheduled maintenance.
Kulow shared that part of the donation included spare solar panels, for the most part the care of solar panels would be the burden of the pool. 
Rice noted the city pool already has financial burdens including the wood on the front, as well as a boiler that will need to be replaced every ten years.
“The pool will work independent of the solar panels, but it won’t work independent of the boiler,” said Rice.
Rice added while he appreciates the efforts of Kulow to estimate the savings and recoupment of the city investment, he thinks it’s difficult to truly know when that investment will be recouped.
“Since I’ve had solar panels on my house, Empire Electric has increased the grid fees on me twice. So it’s really going to be hard to know what the grid fee will be five years, ten years from now.”
Rice added that unless the project came in 100 percent turn-key ready, he felt the city could not accept the donation.
Council member Ron Skinner added his support of moving on from the project, noting other needs in the city including repairs at the visitor center and elsewhere.
Council member Kevin Dunn said, “It may or may not pay us back in 20 years, so it’s very flexible in the aspect that you can fudge the numbers either way. I see a lot of needs in Monticello where we need repairs, infrastructure repairs as well as building repairs.”
Council member Nathan Chamberlain added his comments.
“I agree with the comments but if it’s not 20 years, Kaeden just said it possibly could be a year. I don’t know the numbers, I don’t know the information but if it’s taken 19 years off the repayment then I think we ought to look into it. If it’s taken 10 years off the repayment that was kind of the break-even point for me last time.”
When asked by Chamberlain, Kulow said he thought he could get the information needed in four hours.
“They’ve opened it up to the government, it’s up to 40 percent of the project cost. Once I define what they mean by project cost, that’ll tell me how much we can get back in return and how to go about doing it. The project has to be completed before we can even put in for this money.”
Rice asked if the city can apply for the tax credit, then can the donors apply for that tax credit?
Kulow said it would depend on several factors, including the state and federal law, noting the company had marked it off as a donation so it wasn’t clear if they could also apply for the tax credit.
Rice also shared he he is bothered that the panels were donated to the city without council approval. Mayor Hedglin added that it was accepted through previous city administration, and was never approved by the council.
Crowley added, “That really does put us in a bad position because now we have this gift sitting here and it’s been all these years and it’s going to have to be returned. Should’ve never happened in the first place.”
Chamberlain said, “But it did so where do we go from here?”
Crowley motioned to give Kulow another four weeks to investigate and firm up numbers to help the council make a decision.
The motion failed 3-2 with Chamberlain and Crowley voting for the motion with Rice, Dunn and Skinner voting against.
With the 180 panels in city storage, council member Chamberlain asked what to do next?
Kulow said that he would contact AES to coordinate how to return the panels.
A motion to return the panels with thanks passed four to one with Chamberlain voting against.
At their latest meeting, members of the city council also approved a zone change for a property near 300 East and 100 North. The property was zoned agriculture but the landowner asked for a zone change to R2 residential to allow the home to be used as a nightly rental.
In a hearing, the owner said they plan to have long-term renters in the building. Members of the council approved the change unanimously.
At the meeting, members of the council also approved two different equipment fixes, including repairs to the Jet A fuel system at the city airport.
City staff shared a quote to repair the broken pump from a Texas company. The quote came with a worst-case scenario of $17,800 for the repair as the company will bring all the parts that could be replaced to the airport.
City Manager Kaeden Kulow explained that if not all the parts are needed, the city wouldn’t be billed and the cost of the repair would go down.
City staff said they receive several calls a month from pilots asking if the airport has Jet A fuel, only to be told no. Staff said that leads to pilots being redirected to Blanding or elsewhere to purchase Jet A fuel for the past year or so.
A working pump is also required as part of the city agreement with their Fixed Base Operator (FBO), who will be sharing a percentage of money earned through the sale of fuel after a certain amount is sold.
Members of the council approved the Jet A fuel system repair. The council also approved purchase of a new Turbidity meter. City staff explained in layman’s terms that the meter is used to track the clarity of water coming into the city plant, with the system also sharing information on how to best treat that water. The repair was authorized at $29,000.
Members of the council approved an update to city office hours. Kulow shared that over the past year, office staff has tracked when residents call-in and come into the city offices to get a better sense on how to optimize city efficiency.
Tracking showed most in-person visits to the office start at 8:30 a.m., with calls starting around 9 a.m. Additionally, visits to the office after 4:30 p.m. were also reported as limited.
Office hours had been 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays and 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with Fridays from 8 a.m. to Noon.
City administration recommended a standardized set of hours with the council approving updated hours of 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to Noon on Friday.
The end result will be one more additional hour that the city office is open per week. City council members agreed that consistency will be key, and with data to back-up the lower level of frequency early in the morning and end of day, members of the council approved the updated schedule with a recommendation that city staff publicize those updated hours.
Members of the council also reviewed additional updates to the city garbage and refuse code. The update to the code would allow for landscaping in city bins if it’s bagged and fits inside the polycarts with the lid closed.
Council also discussed how to implement excessive weight regulations and thanked Lee Bennett for her work volunteering to write the update of the code.
Members of the council also selected the update to the city sewer systems as the project to use for application of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds.
At a previous council meeting members had discussed the sewer master plan update, as well as a possible application for an American with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant playground at Veterans Park, as possible applications for the funds.
At their latest meeting council also discussed the possibility of applying through CDBG for a water needs/storage study. 
After discussion, council noted that shovel ready projects are often most likely to get awarded and decided to focus application through this round of CDBG on sewer infrastructure improvement.
The project has been planned out and will upgrade infrastructure, including some of the oldest sewer lines in town, some as old as 80 years,  in the southwest portion of Monticello.

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