July 21, 2008
Cattaraugus County Legislature to Assess Lawyer Fees for Wind Farm
By Kathy Kellogg
The Cattaraugus County Legislature will decide Wednesday whether to spend $25,000 on a law firm to help negotiate payments from future wind farm developers within the county.Several lawmakers have stated they hope to keep the Cattaraugus County Industrial Development Agency from collecting a percentage of a project worth several hundred millions of dollars, and several said they first want to meet with lawyers in person before agreeing to a contract. The requested $50,000 appropriation was halved after the Finance Committee amended the legislation during the initial round of discussion last Wednesday.
The Legislature tabled an "opt out" measure earlier this year that would have exempted from state tax credits any alternative energy systems -- from solar panels and wind turbines serving private homes to the 67-turbine commercial wind farms that could be permitted by town governments in Cattaraugus County. State law grants the tax credits to the owners of alternative energy facilities for a period of 15 years unless a county votes to opt out of the process.
Passage of the legislation would not only have cost several homeowners and farmers those tax breaks, but the independent CCIDA would have the lead in negotiating wind farm development payments to local taxing districts in place of taxes.
In CCIDA projects, the agency negotiates payments-in-lieu-of- taxes (PILOT) terms. The developer begins with a fraction of the tax payments to all taxing authorities, enlarging the payments over the length of a 10- or 15-year agreement until full taxable value is reached.
But lawmakers, mindful of the millions of dollars in possible revenue at stake, instead would like the county to control how those payments are negotiated and divided up. Currently, Noble Environmental Power of Essex, Conn., is holding talks with the Freedom and Farmersville town officials for a wind farm project spanning those communities. Lawmakers say two other firms could soon propose projects in other towns.
During last Wednesday's Development and Agriculture Committee meeting, lawmakers conducted a telephone interview with attorney Kevin R. McAuliffe of Hiscock & Barclay. The legislature will vote Wednesday on legislation to hire McAuliffe and other members of his firm from Aug. 1 to Dec. 31 for hourly fees between $150 and $350.
McAuliffe said in 2001 he helped negotiate the Maple Ridge wind farm benefits in Lewis County, transforming a $700,000 a year proposal to an $11 million annual PILOT. He also told the lawmakers he advocates moving away from town-driven host community benefit packages because that amount of money is too much for a town to spend. He also believes in uniform treatment for PILOT agreements.
In answer to a question about the county's late entrance into the wind energy field, McAuliffe reminded the Committee members that the state Attorney General last week began investigating Noble and First Wind for improper dealings with public officials.
"You can look at it totally different and say at least no one's subpoenaed any of your files. I don't think that puts you behind at all and you have an opportunity to look at what works in other counties," McAuliffe said.
In other business, several committees sent the Legislature a proposal by William E. Sprague, D-Yorkshire, to begin negotiating a four-day work week in the Public Works Department. If the measure is approved on Wednesday, workers' schedules could be cut down some time between Aug. 1 and Oct. 31 to a four-day work week as a way to save money on energy costs.
Sprague told members of the Labor Relations Committee that a four- day work week could save $46,000 in fuel in one year. Public Works Department Commissioner David J. Rivet suggested that a memorandum of understanding might be a way of revising that portion of the contract.
With legislative approval, Human Resources Director David Moshier would have to negotiate an agreement with the union to implement the practice -- one which officials say is already common in most towns and already a long-standing procedure in the Motor Vehicles Department and other areas of county government.
Potentially having insufficient workers to man crews on Fridays, the possibility for unplanned overtime and other problem areas were noted in the Committee discussions. Moshier said the union has twice voted against the practice. It was also noted that even if an arrangement could be negotiated immediately, the Aug. 1 starting date could not be met because crews are now working five 10-hour days each week to complete summer construction and maintenance tasks.
The proposal received four votes in the five-member Labor Relations Committee and the same number in the seven-member County Operations Committee, with the nine-member Finance Committee approving it with seven votes. The measure was not included in the Public Works Committee agenda and County Administrator Jack Searles said the omission was not intentional.
Originally published by CATTARAUGUS CORRESPONDENT.
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