Knox should seize its chance to lead the way to a better world — and bring in $100K

It’s hard to be the frontrunner, the one breaking the trail. But that is how society progresses as the rest of us follow.

Amy Pokorny is a trailblazer. She and her husband, Russell Pokorny — she’s on the Knox Town Board, he’s the town’s assessor — care deeply about saving the Earth from the destruction that comes from climate change.

They live in a house powered by wind from a windmill on their property. They charge their electric car and lawnmower with energy from solar panels. But they don’t stop at just doing their part. They work to inspire others.

Every year, the Pokornys invite Berne-Knox-Westerlo fourth-graders studying alternative energy to their home to show them how wind and solar energy work. A decade ago, the Pokornys helped found Helderberg Community Energy with the hopes, first, of setting up a community wind farm. When that didn’t work, they focused on a community solar array. When that didn’t work either, they didn’t give up but rather joined forces with Solarize Albany and recruited people — like the editor of this newspaper — who couldn’t have solar panels at their home to get their energy from a community solar array. Those first customers went online this year.

At the same time, Amy Pokorny, in her role as a councilwoman, helped by a committee of volunteers, has worked through the labyrinth of requirements — save one — that would bring the town $100,000 for projects that reduce greenhouse gases or generate energy from a renewable source. (See related story.)

According to a proposal that Pokorny and her committee have drafted, the $100,000 would go to upgrade the badly deteriorated town highway garage as well as the park maintenance building. It would also pay for solar panels. The insulated buildings as well as the free sources of energy would save the town money for years to come.

Knox had completed three of the four required action items for the $100,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and Pokorny had secured a grant from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation to pay for the fourth — a charging station for electric vehicles.

At the Feb. 14 Knox Town Board meeting, as Pokorny explained once again the process for obtaining the grant, she was met largely with derision from some of the three dozen people attending the meeting, derision that went unchecked by the elected board members and supervisor.

Earlier in the meeting, the town’s supervisor, Vasilios Lefkaditis, had told a tale of the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, one of the wealthiest companies on the planet and one of the most innovative. (Lefkaditis had told the story to support designating another business district in Knox, assuming that the designation alone would attract businesses although the current district hasn’t done so.)

Lefkaditis said that Jobs, in his youth, would work on computers in the family’s garage as his father asked, “Who’s going to buy computers?” Of course, the revolution in computer technology has changed our world. Jobs was a frontrunner — doubted by even those closest to him, according to Lefkaditis’s story.

So, too, is Amy Pokorny a frontrunner, part of a movement trying to save human beings from destroying our world. Our nation’s move to renewable energy, away from fossil fuels, would be as much of a sea change as our move to computer technology. But even for those, like some in the Knox Valentine’s Day crowd, who don’t accept the reality of climate change, there are still concrete advantages for Knox to accept this grant.

New York State is offering incentives to help municipalities, businesses, and citizens make the switch to renewable energy. As countries from around the world — both rich and poor — agreed in the Paris Accord, action needs to be taken now if we are to avoid more of the ruinous conditions, the floods and famines, we have already seen.

As federal regulations may soon be dismantled, New York State is committed to getting half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050. That’s a tall order. How will it be fulfilled?

One way is through grants like that being offered by NYSERDA and by the DEC. The Feb. 14 crowd was riled against Pokorny’s proposal in part because it was spending tax money. The tax money will be collected whether or not Knox accepts the grant; it will simply go to another municipality instead. The Knox board and Lefkaditis showed no such reticence in accepting tax-generated money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for highway equipment.

Any of the sticking points pushed by Lefkaditis and echoed by the crowd have answers if the derisive atmosphere were calmed enough for the board to find solutions. Lefkaditis said at one point,  “If 3,000 people told me they wanted nuclear power plants, we’d do it...I’m a mouthpiece.”

Knox, like town governments across New York — and also like the state legislature and United States Congress — is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. The elected board members and supervisor are to represent the people. For every one of the two dozen or so people shouting derisively at the town hall meeting, there are another 100 Knox residents not in the room. The board is to represent all of them.

We would argue that Lefkaditis is not just a mouthpiece. When he is governing at his best, he is finding solutions for problems that residents weren’t largely aware of. A case in point is, soon after he took office a little over a year ago, he led a tour of all of the town’s facilities. The tour made plain a number of problems that needed to be addressed — most prominently at the town’s highway garage.

Lefkaditis, with the board’s backing, has already solved some of the problems found with the town hall building. There was no hue and cry from the public to do this — Lefkaditis wasn’t following a crowd. It was leadership, pure and simple.

Pokorny is being the same sort of leader on a different front. She is harnessing the energy of townspeople to help her and she had the backing of the board, in a 3 to 2 vote, to apply for the DEC grant. Yet she couldn’t even get a second on her motion to accept the $11,835 DEC grant. It died without a board discussion on how any problems with it might be solved.

The town’s monthly agenda outlines procedures for civil discussion — “Upon being called on by the supervisor please state your name and address for the recording secretary and limit your comments to 3 minutes unless extended by the board” — but we’ve rarely seen them followed. Rather, it’s often government by wisecrack in Knox.

We hope the board members revisit the issue with open minds. Here are what we see as solutions to the problems raised:

— Lefkaditis and some in the crowd have said there are only four electric cars in town and a project shouldn’t be undertaken for so few people. Pokorny has patiently explained that the electric car owners charge their cars at their own homes and the station would instead be used to attract visitors to the Hilltowns. Tourism is a frequent driver of economies in attractive rural places near urban and suburban areas like the Hilltowns;

— Lefkaditis and some in the crowd have said Knox shouldn’t be paying electricity costs for people charging their cars. “Can I go to the town garage for free fuel?” asked Lefkaditis. Of course not. Pokorny had solved this problem by specifying software that would track those who use the filling station and bill them directly.

This led to a further problem of a cost of $500 each year after the first two years.  That’s easily solved by having a solar panel supply the energy to the station. The panel could be covered by the grant and there would be no cost to the town going forward.

— Lefkaditis raised issues about the difficulty of digging a trench in tough topography near town hall and also questioned the availability of highway department employees to do the work. Knox has long prided itself in its frugality of having its skilled town workers build everything from the park building to the transfer station.

We believe this problem, too, could be easily solved by placing the station in easier terrain next to the highway garage.

— Lefkaditis read a derisive letter out loud at the Feb. 14 meeting although all of the board members already had copies. The crowd applauded. The letter made fun of the project and stated EV stations should be near businesses not in a boring place like the Knox hamlet.

Part of this is the chicken-or-egg dilemma — which comes first? If you want businesses — and it’s quite true there are none now in the Knox hamlet, the town’s only business district — shouldn’t you provide amenities?

But this problem, too, could be easily solved by locating the EV station at the highway garage. Hilltown tourists could easily walk across the street to enjoy a meal at the Township Tavern while their cars get recharged. That helps business and helps promote tourism.

— Finally, there was a general consensus that the EV station would serve no one and be of no benefit to the town. Pokorny answered this by correctly stating that Knox would take no risk. Installing the EV station soon would allow Knox to get a $100,000 grant and if, after time, the station weren’t used, the town would own it, could dismantle it, and sell it.

This is all true, but we think there’s a better answer. Having an EV station would poise Knox for the future. The sort of people who invest in electric cars are the same sort who enjoy eco tourism. Once the EV station in Knox shows up on their apps, Knox is literally on the map as a destination.

But more importantly — and not a word was spoken about this at the Valentine’s Day massacre — Governor Andrew Cuomo on Feb. 10 announced a $3 million initiative for municipalities to purchase electric vehicles as part of the New York Power Authority’s Municipal Electric-Drive Vehicle Program. All types of commercially available electric and hybrid vehicles are offered from pickup trucks to heavy-duty utility bucket trucks. The funding builds on $5 million previously distributed, which has put 61 clean vehicles into service in 24 towns and village across the state, the governor announced.

Four days before the Knox meeting, the governor said, “I urge any eligible municipality to join us in our fight against climate change.”

Wouldn’t it be great if Knox, ready with its EV charging station at the highway garage, could get such vehicles next time it needs one?

We can see no downside to proceeding with the EV station. Being a frontrunner can have its advantages. Why be the way Lefkaditis described Steve Jobs’s father? He asked, “Who’s going to buy computers?” Will those in future generations shake their heads for Knox leaders now ostensibly asking, “Who’s going to buy electric vehicles?”

Lefkaditis said earlier that the townspeople’s view, overwhelmingly, on the EV station is: “Screw this, put in a gas pump.” That may be, but rejecting a $12,000 grant for an EV station won’t put in a gas pump. Lefkaditis himself said he had called companies to see about getting a gas station in town and there were no takers.

Pokorny and her difficult work navigating the state’s grant system for the advantage of her town should be embraced, not derided. An EV station, and the $100,000 grant money that would follow, would save energy costs in town for years to come. It would be good for Knox and good for the world.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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