AYER — Dan Sherman, head of building maintenance for several Ayer municipal buildings, peppered Johnson Controls sales staff with questions at Tuesday’s Energy subcommittee meeting. The selectmen are seeking the subcommittee’s recommendation in advance of Annual Town Meeting on May 10. On the warrant is a selectmen request for authority to enter into a maximum 15-year, $756,485 energy savings contract with the company. Johnson Controls pledges that, by implementing the energy-savings measures they’ll recommend, the town will recoup via savings over time, or else Johnson Controls will pay the difference.

Sherman challenged as unnecessary the company’s call to replace newer equipment in several buildings. He rued the lack of the Detailed Energy Audit plan that the town paid Johnson Controls $21,000 to produce. It’s to arrive next week, likely too late for the subcommittees’ review prior to the selectmen’s Tuesday, May 4 meeting — the board’s final meeting in advance of the Annual Town Meeting the following Monday.

“I just don’t see it happening — not in a pressure cooker type situation,” said Sherman of the company’s promise to timely provide the audit results. “It’s not going to happen, for me.”

“I really don’t want to produce it if you’re not interested in pieces if the ‘payback’s too long’ or whatever” said account executive Kathy Stanley. “So I don’t want to do a 450-page report if you don’t want it.” She pondered whether the subcommittee wanted to employ an energy-saving company at all.

Selectman Rick Gilles suggested paring down the initial to-do list, reducing the outlay to just $560,000 sum. A $150,000 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act federal grant would partially subsidize the project, with the first $75,000 to arrive this fiscal year and the other half to flow in fiscal year 2011, assuming work proceeds.

“We’d get to 89 percent of the rebates available and 88 percent of the energy savings available,” Gilles said. “We’d be almost 90 percent of the way there with the first five items and seven-year payback period. This way we get a huge hunk of the way there for a little more than 50 percent of the cost with a way shortened pay-back period. It seems like a good compromise.”

But even looking at the shortened list, Sherman said he’d prune $132,000 worth of lighting retrofits since National Grid offers a no-capital cost program. “They’re offering better monies,” Sherman said, “It’s a no brainer. Why would we use funding that we don’t have to use?”

Subcommittee member Al Wilson is a school facilities manager for Shirley. He agreed with Sherman’s assessment. “I’ve experienced the same thing,” he said. “This whole issue — it’s like the tip of an iceberg. It all sounds good, but when you start talking about the real world issues to making these things happen…. there are so many things that have to be carefully thought through.”

Wilson said Shirley had considered but dismissed the notion of employing an energy saving company for energy savings at Lura White Elementary School and Shirley Middle School.

“We decided not to proceed. We determined we could save on our own,” Wilson said. The lack of wide competition in the energy saving company field meant it was hard to price one against another to see if, in fact, they were competitively priced.

“Really the time for you to have addressed that was before you signed the contract,” said Stanley. “I really have the feeling that the project is falling apart.”

Cotton suggested the state Department of Energy Resources has a consultant on reserve to assist Ayer.

Throwing her hands up in the air, Gabree asked, “Where is this person?”

The consultant, John Rizzo, President of American Development Institute of Warwick, R.I., won’t attend a local meeting unless he’s under contract, said interim town administrator Jeff Ritter.

The selectmen moved to adjourn their involvement in the meeting. Selectman Jim Fay noted hopefully, “It sounds like we’ve very close” before departing to let the subcommittee sort it all out.

DPW superintendent Dan Nason said contract decisions are not his forte, but of the ten buildings Johnson Controls was focused on, six fell under his purview. “I have bid contracts I need to get out by June,” said Nason. “I’d love to sign up but I don’t have the time and personnel to do this.”

“I think that you need to discuss whether you want to do a performance contact because it doesn’t seem to be to be the consensus,” said Stanley.

“The consensus was that in-house we wouldn’t do this work and that’s why we went down this path,” said selectman Carolyn McCreary, a driving proponent for the energy-saving company approach.

It’s hardly a novel concept, Cotton said, noting some 63 communities have energy-saving company contracts “in some stage,” including Ayer’s efforts to date.

When asked about the possibility of the company folding or not being able to stand by its contract with the town after the town incurred upfront costs, Cotton stressed the stability of Johnson Controls, which has been in business for 175 years. He cited state law that bans energy-saving companies from selling their contractual liability to a third party to insure.

“That’s why you contract with an entity that’s been around,” he said. Cotton admitted that “If Johnson Controls disappeared tomorrow and you had a shortfall on your project, the promise would go away with the corporation.”

Looking forward to town meeting, McCreary waxed optimistic, “What I think we need is simply a recommendation that we’re going to do due diligence on this and that we’re going to come up with the best decision we can. We’ll go to Town Meeting and say ‘Trust us.’ We’ve been asking the hard questions. And if we go forward with this, it would be the right thing to do because we’ve done our homework on this.”