The Brunswick Times Record
Guest column: Rescind the solar tax
By Jake Plante
Gov. Mills vowed to install solar panels on the Blaine House in her inaugural address. Good thing her new home is in Augusta and not Brunswick because Brunswick would tax her environmental contribution.
In response to Brunswick’s tax on residential solar panels, a group of homeowners have filed suit in Maine Superior Court to rescind it. The case is centered around two matters of fairness. First, the Town’s simple fee per panel ignores the effective differences in system performance ratings, age, siting, and end use (electricity or hot water). Second, solar is being singled out and taxed differently than other home energy and cost-saving measures including insulation and wood stoves. Being able to see solar rooftop panels from the street and easily count them is no basis for exclusive treatment.
The Town contends that solar panels increase home resale values yet concedes that it has no state or local data to back up its assertion. Nor did the Tax Assessors Office do any research other than a quick online search of five articles – none of which are specific to Maine. Most high school and college teachers wouldn’t permit this type of shallow sourcing on a term paper.
However, the 2-year old controversy affecting 130 solar households is about much more than the core legal arguments. In 2015, the Town sent multi-colored balloons skyward to promote “Solarize Brunswick,” a joint purchasing program that convinced 65 families to buy solar at a discount. Then, a mere two years later, the Town flipped 180 degrees, acted in bad faith, and began to tax the 65 “Solarize Brunswick” families and everyone else for their solar investments. Is it any wonder why faith in government is declining?
Environmental considerations are excluded from the court case yet the environment is at the heart of the issue. Many people invest in solar to do their small part to improve air quality and show their concern about climate change. If the worldwide causes of climate change stem from “death by a thousand cuts”, then the solutions – borrowing a metaphor from President Bush – must come from “a thousand points of light.” Adding solar to your rooftop is a point of light; taxing solar and putting it out of reach for more people is another cut.
Regional economics are also excluded from the suit even though solar development is a big plus for Maine businesses and good jobs. In addition, solar keeps our energy dollars circulating locally and adds competition to the market, helping to protect everyone’s wallet.
For these reasons, solar homeowners who take a financial risk to help the environment and the local economy deserve their town’s support, or at least neutrality, not a punitive tax. Brunswick’s misguided solar tax was created in a vacuum without any discussion of environmental goals, the value of self-reliance, or the antiquated subsidies bestowed on fossil fuels, including tax depletion allowances, master limited partnerships (to avoid corporate taxes), loan guarantees, low royalties on federal land leases and, most recently, EPA regulatory roll-backs. Before you tax a promising clean technology like solar, why not hear from residents about the many reasons for using it?
The long-term solution is for the Maine Legislature to amend state law to exempt solar energy from local property taxes or else to create a “local option” by which town councils share solar decision-making with town assessors. If nothing else, the option would make the process more thoughtful and objective.
Brunswick’s recent public statements on the issue are nimble greenwashing. The Town claims that it is “constitutionally required” to tax solar. If that were true, then virtually every other local municipality in Maine is violating the law today by not taxing solar. Also, the Town is indicating its support of new state legislation to exempt solar in the future. That’s fine although it doesn’t excuse the Town from its improper two-year treasure hunt for more revenue.
It’s important that we all pay our fair taxes for everything we want local government to do. But in return, it’s the responsibility of local government to recognize that environmental protection is one of its most important duties. Rescind the solar tax.
Jake Plante lives in Brunswick