You might think that installing a charging station for plug-in electric cars shouldn't be that complicated. It's essentially an electric appliance.

But in the city of Watertown, New York, City Attorney Robert J. Slye recently determined that installing charging stations in a municipal parking lot would be nothing less than unconstitutional.

The New York State Constitution, he noted, says that municipalities shall not "give or loan any money or property to or in aid of any individual, corporation or association, or private undertaking.”

And the New York State comptroller rendered the same opinion to City Hall in Ogdensburg, New York, as well.

Similarly, charging stations announced for the city of Rochester and towns in Westchester County are not planned for municipal properties.

For the moment, it appears that no electric-car charging station will go onto municipal property in New York State unless users can be charged for the electricity.

That won't be that hard.

Various companies (among them ChargePoint and Blink) provide payment mechanisms to cover the cost of using electric-car charging stations.

They may even return a profit to the municipal body.

Under a New York State Energy Research & Development Authority initiative announced last June that was to fund Watertown's charging stations, drivers who charged up their cars would have done so for free.

National Grid, the local electric utility, is seeking about 70 municipalities within its service area to participate.

Under the program, the locality pays 10 percent of the cost of about $6,500 for installing the charging station, as well as the cost of the electricity.

In mid-January, Watertown dropped its proposal to install electric-car charging stations in the city parking lot altogether.

2012 Nissan Leaf winter test

2012 Nissan Leaf winter test

Instead, earlier this month, National Grid announced that it would install charging stations in the parking lot of a Tops supermarket in Pamelia, the town directly north of Waterown.

Watertown is known largely for its position as the last major city before the state's Canadian border to the north, as well as its 112 inches of average annual snowfall.

Since most early plug-in electric cars will mostly be recharged via privately owned charging stations inside the owners' garages, the decision to keep free charging off city property won't make or break electric cars in the upstate city.

But it does point out some of the unexpected hurdles and pitfalls that electric-car proponents can encounter as they work to install public charging infrastructure.

Left unanswered is the question of whether city governments providing free parking also runs afoul of the New York state constitution.


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