On Thursday, March 14 residents of the SAD 41 communities of Atkinson, Brownville, LaGrange and Milo will head to their respective polls to vote on a $2.4 million energy infrastructure upgrade project for the Penquis Valley School in Milo. The project would update the 50-year-old steam heating system infrastructure -- converting from steam to hot water -- and make LED lighting upgrades and building weatherization improvements. The estimated net cost for the district is $744,143 to be paid over 20 years. Credit: Stuart Hedstrom | Piscataquis Observer

MILO, Maine — Voters in SAD 41 on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a $2.4 million funding package to upgrade the heating system at Penquis Valley School. The vote was 152 to 25, pending verification of the results.

The referendum was approved in each district community: 7-1 in Atkinson, 55-9 in Brownville, 19-5 in LaGrange and 71-10 in Milo.

Last May a $2.3 million project was voted down via a count of 161 to 111 across the four communities. Residents of Brownville, LaGrange and Milo passed the question 106 to 42, but in Atkinson the referendum was turned down 114 to 5.

Atkinson is scheduled to deorganize and join the Piscataquis County Unorganized Territory (UT) as of July 1. Had the project been approved last year, then the community would have been responsible for 10.4 percent of the upgrade debt moving forward. As part of the UT, Atkinson students will head west to RSU 68/Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft.

In December the SAD 41 directors approved an amendment to the withdrawal agreement with Atkinson in which the town would not be liable for new debt approved prior to June 30, 2019, in exchange for an agreement by Atkinson that its selectmen would strongly recommend to the community’s voters to support approval of the new debt by district voters.

Atkinson traditionally paid about 10.8 percent of costs, and this 10.8 percent of the project would be absorbed by the other three towns based upon the amendment to withdrawal agreement. Atkinson will make a one-time payment of $275,000 to SAD 41 prior to July 1 withdrawal.

The Penquis Valley project has three objectives. The first is to update the steam heating system infrastructure that is beyond its useful life to improve reliability, comfort, indoor air quality and safety. The other objectives are to reduce annual energy and operating costs and reduce future building repair costs.

The gross proposed project cost is $2,414,923, with a little more than $2.1 million for the steam to hot water system conversion, another $190,000 is for LED lighting upgrades, and an additional is for $34,700 for building weatherization improvements.

The project would be financed under a 20-year bond through the Maine Municipal Bond Bank. The estimated annual bond cost, fixed for two decades starting with the 2020-21 fiscal year, is $177,694, but various measures would be in place to reduce the costs.

SAD 41 would have a little more than $19,000 in existing budget savings for energy usage and another $40,000 in operating budget capital contributions. The Honeywell service contract would be reduced by $25,000, the maintenance budget could decrease by $2,500 and for the first year there would be a one-time Efficiency Maine rebate of $29,195.

The first year project cost is $61,953, which would become part of the 2019-20 academic year budget. SAD 41’s estimated total net cost, after the various savings measures such as reduced energy expenditures and a reduction in the Honeywell contract, over 20 years would be $744,143. The annual portion of the $744,143 to be paid by the district would vary year by year.

With the referendum approved, the loan and contract with Honeywell would be executed Wednesday, March 27. Construction would start June 7 with substantial completion done by Sept. 27 and the project sign off Nov. 29.

During a March 14 school board meeting, a question asked if there was a plan B should the referendum fail.

“We’ll keep going with the band-aids, it’s going to pass,” Director of Building and Grounds Donnie Richards said. “If it doesn’t then our service contract with Honeywell’s going to go up because we have a lot to take care of.”