New Hampshire is set to be the recipient of more than $30 million as a result of a legal settlement with Volkswagen over allegations that the German automaker had deliberately designed its vehicles to fool emissions testing. The money is being directed by settlement trustees with a mandate that it be spent on efforts that will make up for the environmental damage that might have been done by the carmaker’s actions.
Since the start of the year, New Hampshire’s Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee and the Executive Council have each been called upon to approve the first round of spending of the settlement funds in the state. The state Department of Transportation is looking to spend $3.2 million to replace nine 10-wheeled trucks and 21 six-wheeled trucks used for snow removal.
As one of the stipulations for the settlement funds, the trucks to be replaced cannot have already been set for replacement as part of DOT’s normal operations and funding. This led to some consternation from the fiscal committee.
”I guess a number of these trucks [to be replaced] appear to be still in fairly good condition,” said Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough. “And because they would be participating in this mitigation fund, they would all have to be destroyed. So those trucks that would go typically to the White Farm for auction wouldn’t be available for all these independents to come to the auction to buy state trucks.”
The secretary of the Department of Transportation, Victoria Sheehan, explained that the trucks set to be scrapped and replaced with settlement funds were in far from pristine condition – the problem, she said, is that the department’s funding to replace worn out vehicles is short by $39 million.
“So when we say that we were not anticipating replacing these trucks in the next three years, that’s not because those vehicles are in ideal condition,” she said. “It’s because we don’t have the funding currently, if it wasn’t for this program, to replace the vehicles.”
Leishman was also concerned that the state, by using the settlement funds for its own fleet, wouldn’t leave enough funds available for municipalities to take advantage of their own eligibility. But Sheehan explained that the settlement agreement itself dictated that a certain percentage of the money go to the state and the remainder to individual communities.
After gaining approval from the fiscal committee, it had to get the same OK from the Executive Council. At that meeting, Councilor Theodore Gatsas, R-Manchester, strove to dig into the fine details of the spending, eliciting reassurances from Sheehan and Jared Chicoine, director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives, that no VW settlement funds would be spent without explicit approval of both the fiscal committee and the Executive Council.
Councilor Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, questioned why the replaced vehicles had to be completely destroyed, as opposed to just destroying the inefficient engines of the vehicles.
“What we’ve found is it’s costly … to do the truck breakdowns, it’s an extreme burden on our staff time,” Sheehan said. “So we have been putting out to bid the disposal of the trucks. I’m trying to determine what the residual value for scrap materials there might be.”
Chicoine said that municipalities did not yet have an avenue to apply for settlement funds because his office is still putting together the parameters of that program.
“We’re currently working out the details right now, what that would look like, the grant program for municipalities,” he said. “If we enter into a contract with these communities, it’s my understanding it would come to the council [for approval]. … We’re still working on the details of that.”
The Council unanimously approved the expenditure of the $3.2 million. The remaining funds will be parceled out by the settlement trustee over the course of the next three years, Chicoine said.