HOLYOKE – The City Council has tabled a $275,000 Barr Foundation Clean Energy Transition Grant as it seeks more information.
The grant was referred back to the Finance Committee for additional input from the foundation and Holyoke Gas and Electric (HG&E). The council also tabled the grant during a special meeting in May.
Councilor Joseph McGiverin, who chairs the Finance Committee, said the grant stipulated the City of Holyoke hires a project manager with experience in energy transition, moving from fossil fuels to renewable sources.
McGiverin said the study would explore conserving energy and seeking alternative, cleaner sources. The city and HG&E would use the collected data to set policies.
The sticking point for several councilors was the inclusion of nonprofit Neighbor to Neighbor in the study and making HG&E a full partner.
Though the Barr Foundation granted Neighbor to Neighbor, a separate award, Councilors David Bartley, Linda Vacon, Mike Sullivan, and others opposed the nonprofits participating in the study, citing an adversarial relationship between the nonprofit and HG&E.
The Barr Foundation would not change the grants criteria or language that mentions Neighbor to Neighbor. Barr remains one of Massachusetts’ largest foundations and has awarded the city funding in the past.
“This is a generous grant, and we do believe the use of the grant could be beneficial to the city,” McGiverin told his colleagues. The Finance Committee, in a 3-2 vote, recommended denying the grant’s approval.
At the last City Council meeting, the grant passed the first reading, a parliamentary procedure toward passage or rejection. However, McGiverin said a second reading did not garner the necessary votes, which delayed a final decision.
The grant needed a two-thirds majority vote to gain acceptance.
Councilor Terence Murphy explained to the Barr Foundation that the study would benefit from HG&E as the lead on the study. He said the foundation was never asked to make HG&E a full partner or received such a request from the utility company.
While the Barr Foundation viewed HG&E as a “critical partner” in the study, the foundation could not “unilaterally” add the utility to the agreement, according to Murphy. He will support the grant if HG&E becomes a formal partner.
Murphy suggested the council table the grant until Mayor Alex Morse spoke with HG&E on a partnership. “It would be more unifying and effective if all parties worked together,” he said.
Councilor Peter Tallman, who voted in accepting the grant, said he talked with several residents in the past few weeks, including James Lavelle, HG&E’s general manager.
With a change of heart, he believed the grant would have a “detrimental effect” on homeowners and businesses. “I will not be voting for this grant as it is written,” Tallman said.
Councilor Mike Sullivan compared the existing grant’s language to a Trojan Horse, “All gifts, like a Trojan Horse, all gifts are not what they seem on the outside. What’s inside of this, we don’t know,” he said.
Sullivan added, “Without Holyoke Gas and Electric as the lead in the administration of this grant, we’re accepting exactly that, a Trojan Horse,” he said.
The proceedings briefly turned into a Latin tutorial with Councilor Howie Greaney adding a line or two.
Ward 6 Councilor Juan Anderson-Burgos said he spoke with Lavelle, which included expanding a natural gas pipeline that skirts West Holyoke. He said if the city wants to welcome more businesses and add to its housing stock, HG&E needs to expand capacity to meet current and future demand.
Anderson-Burgos added that he read the grant and found nothing that gave him pause. “It sounds like misinformation and scare tactics are being used throughout the community,” he said.
McGiverin said he met with business owners and residents about the grant, who had some concerns. While some councilors viewed the award as potentially detrimental, he could not find such proof.
He admitted there was controversy with Neighbor to Neighbor participation in the study.
McGiverin recommended forming a project manager selection committee comprised of business leaders, residents, and representatives from the City Council and HG&E. “We’re losing natural gas. It’s not Holyoke’s fault. It’s a countrywide issue,” he said.
He agreed with Murphy to table the grant, add HG&E as a full-time partner, and form the selection committee.
“This is a lot of money and, more importantly, the Barr Foundation has deep pockets. It’s a good idea to have a good working relationship with them, and there may be more grants down the road that will directly help out consumers,” McGiverin said.
Ward 5 Councilor Linda Vacon also supported Murphy’s proposal to table the matter.
Councilor Rebecca Lisi said HG&E, along with the Rocky Mountain Institute, would conduct a technical study, which would benefit the utility’s long-term goals. She called for Lavelle to appear before the council to clarify HG&E’s position.