by Dylan Voorhees, NRCM Clean Energy Director
Senator Rector and Representative Prescott,
Thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony today regarding administration of Maine’s Uniform Building & Energy Code (MUBEC) (1). I would like to make four overall points to the committee.
1. MUBEC is important for Maine consumers, our economy, and our energy future. Moving backward on MUBEC will be harmful.
There is overwhelming evidence that building and energy codes provide significant economic, environmental and health and safety benefits for Maine. A strong, efficiently implemented building and energy code is widely supported by: the general public; trade associations in the building industries; bankers and insurers; environmental, public health and consumer advocates; code officials and others. That is because a code provides minimum standards that protect consumer’s interests while providing clarity and consistency for developers.
Although much can be said about the importance of an effective, statewide building code for improving the regulatory environment and fostering economic development, I would like to remind you about why NRCM cares about MUBEC: it reduces our dependence on imported, expensive and polluting sources of energy, namely oil.
â¢ Recall that when MUBEC was first passed out of this committee in 2008, a recent study by the Public Utilities Commission had found that 85% of new home construction would not meet a minimum energy code.
â¢ An independent analysis by national and Maine experts last year found that MUBEC would provide homeowners $207 net savings/year. If fully implemented, MUBEC would save Maine people millions of dollars over the coming decade.
â¢ Oil burning from residential heating is the second largest source of global warming pollution in Maine, more than power plants, more than industry.
â¢ Last year, Efficiency Maine ran a very successful Home Energy Savings Program to help weatherize existing, non-low-income homes. As excellent as the program was, it is dispiriting to note that many relatively new homes got help through that program. Dispiriting because building to minimal efficiency standards the first time is the absolute cheapest way to reduce energy costs in Maine.
I shouldn’t need to remind you that oil prices are going and staying up. Building codes are primarily about new buildingsâbut it is absolutely essential to our long-term prosperity and energy security that we not continue to build any inefficient buildings. We cannot afford to do so.
The attached map illustrates that Maine is unfortunately moving in the wrong direction. This national database of statewide energy codes shows Maine was the only state in the past few years to move backward. Over a dozen other states have moved forward, implementing or making more up-to-date, their statewide building energy codes. This is not merely embarrassing; it threatens to undermine our long-term prosperity.
2. Effective implementation of MUBEC is at least as important as having a code on paper.
The code itself is only one corner of the foundation for safe, efficient, healthy buildings and a positive regulatory environment. Consider three other legs of the chair: Education & Training (for inspectors as well as builders and others); Enforcement (to protect consumers and provide builders with a level playing field); and Ongoing Code Adjustments.
Training cannot be under-rated. Maine has taken some good steps to offer training to code officials and third-party inspectors. This must continue as more towns move into code implementation (2). There has been very little state-supported training of builders and others. Some trade groups, such as the Retail Lumber Dealers, have done some of that. With the impending demise of the State Planning Office and the downscaling of training staff proposed by the Administration, we are very concerned that we will see less training and support for towns instead of more.
A building and energy code needs to be a living document. There are constantly little amendments, new circumstances or conflicts that need to be resolved in a consistent and timely fashion. This is not a flaw in building codes, this is the reality of modern development where technologies and practices change and infinitely vary. That is why this committee, in its wisdom, created a Code Bureau and a representative Code Board of experts to help accomplish that. As many of you know, this Code Board is made up of volunteers. As great as they are, they are carrying a huge weight, not the least because the Bureau Director position has been unfilled for an entire year. Administration of the Code doesn’t require a staff of dozensâall we want is to keep the one or two full time people originally envisioned.
Unfortunately, last year the legislature has made MUBEC more complicated and created more regulatory uncertaintyâquite the opposite of the original intent. Which towns will have which part of the code? What are the responsibilities of towns now? What is the process for developers who have issues with the code to have them resolved? All this means we should be investing more staff and resources to make streamline implementation of MUBEC, not less.
3. “Creating efficiencies” is an appealing talking point but deserves scrutiny. Undermining administration of MUBEC by reducing support and resources could make the development process in Maine less efficient.
Cutting costs is not the same as being efficient. Make no mistake, the purpose of this bill is to cut costs and reduce the stature of building codes within state government. I hope the committee will ask tough questions about the impact of cutting code staff. Could this be penny-wise, pound-foolish? The Administration’s proposal appears to be pushing the full-time responsibilities of a Code Bureau Director into an existing full-time position. We and others here are concerned that this will leave essential work undone or greatly slowed, and the impact of that will be to needlessly hinder the development process. That’s not efficiency (3).
The work is little thingsâlike making sure there is up-to-date information on this complex subject on the websiteâand larger thingsâlike tracking which towns have which parts of the now divided MUBECâand absolutely essential jobsâlike administering rulemaking to resolve conflicts in the code. If this work slips, it impacts the people who need MUBEC to work every day.
The 2008 MUBEC law recognized the importance of the Fire Marshal’s Office by providing them with a designated seat on the Code Board. This law goes much further, by putting the entire administration of MUBEC under that office. It is not clear to me and those with more experience in the development community that this will lead to greater efficiency, and it could threaten the balance that has previously been in place.
4. The Administration appears to have already largely implemented the changes in this bill. In addition to concerns about the substance of those changes, this undermines the ability of the legislature to independently weigh the merits of agency and budgetary changes.
I first became aware of the shifts described in this bill last summer at a Code Board meeting, when it was “announced” that the Code Bureau position would not be filled and those duties would be merged with an existing position. I have to be honest: talking to several people here today, many fear this is a done deal. (For the record, I have never heard anyone say that Rich McCarthy is not fully qualified and committed to help administer MUBEC, and he’s been an invaluable member of the Code Board.) This is about public process. If the committee concludes, as we do, that the proposals on Code administration and staffing could cause more harm than savings, I encourage you to work to help ensure there are sufficient resources to make MUBEC work for Maine’s people and economy.
1 Although I don’t have any detailed comments on LD 1619, I will mention that NRCM has no objections to that legislation, which appears necessary to correct conflicts from legislation passed last year. Although we strongly opposed one of those billsâpassed by the State & Local committee to roll-back MUBEC in half the stateâwe agree that it is important for the law to be clear and consistent.
2 As a side note, the committee should know that a several towns under 4,000 are moving to adopt MUBEC and a number are already done. Unfortunately this is a needlessly complicated process and will still leave a patchwork across the state.
3 It is also not clear that LD 1787 shows the whole picture. It is likely that a look at the budget is necessary.