Energy, health, fuel discussed

Published 10:01 pm Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A joint city and school committee tasked with finding ways to save money discussed several issues at its Monday meeting, including energy performance contracting.

The project, which both entities are pursuing, is moving along, staff members reported.

“It sounds like we’re definitely on the right track,” said Councilman Mike Duman, a member of the City School Advisory Committee for Collaborative Fiscal Concerns.

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Energy performance contracting is a state program that allows entities to contract with a vendor from a state-approved list to make energy-saving upgrades. The vendor guarantees the energy costs saved after the upgrades will cover the debt service used to pay for the upgrades. If it does not, the vendor writes a check for the difference.

The program has been successful at Western Tidewater Regional Jail, where the water bill alone has been cut in half. Duman is on the jail authority board, so he has pushed for the city and schools also to pursue the program.

The city and schools have selected Damuth Trane to complete the upgrades.

Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Deran Whitney said Monday that a report on the company’s assessment of school facilities is due during the School Board’s annual planning session on Aug. 18.

Gerry Jones, director of capital programs and buildings for Suffolk, also said a meeting is planned for Aug. 16 on the city side to go over recommended projects and costs.

“We’ve got some projects we can benefit from,” Jones said. He noted especially the Godwin Courts Building, which is approaching 20 years old and could use some upgrades of its major systems.

Whitney said the schools also are looking forward to seeing some improvements.

“It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight as far as the savings, but it’s certainly appropriate to move in that direction,” he said.

“The bottom line is to save tax dollars,” Duman added.

On another topic the committee has discussed — health insurance costs — both entities reported on their current health insurance contracts and when they could get out of them if the city and schools decide to combine efforts.

Wendy Forsman, finance director for Suffolk Public Schools, said the school system’s current contract expires in September 2018, and the division has to inform the company no later than May 1 of that year if it plans to go a different way.

Forsman noted that any change would be accompanied by a rollover period when the system would have to be prepared with extra cash to finish out old claims even as it is making payments to a new company.

City Manager Patrick Roberts said the city has about 16 months left on its contract and can exit with 90 days’ notice with no penalty.

“Within the contract, we have a lot of flexibility to make changes to our plan,” he added.

The group also discussed communicating regularly with employees about what their health insurance costs their employer, giving them a better idea of the value they’re getting with their benefits.

“We oftentimes will have folks who leave because of salary, but then they see what’s not included under the health plan” in the new jurisdiction, Whitney said.

Duman said he hopes the city and schools’ plans can be more similar in the future, if not exactly the same.

“I don’t like to hear that people are going from one entity to another entity in the same city because the benefits are better,” he said. “I have a problem with that.”

On another topic, Duman asked about the possibility of locking in fuel costs for both entities at the current low rate. Staff agreed to explore options and report back at the committee’s next meeting, which is set for Oct. 3.