Supervisors say chairman conducted backdoor negotiations.
Members of the Madison County Board of Supervisors are up in arms over what they say amounted to covert efforts by Chairman Rocco J. DiVeronica and others to grab a piece of the pie in a windmill project underway in the towns of Stockbridge, Madison, Eaton and neighboring Oneida County’s town of Augusta.
Supervisors Alex Stepanski (Stockbridge), George Turner (Madison) and David Puddington (Eaton) learned last week that attorneys purportedly representing Madison County had entered the towns’ and school districts’ negotiations for payments in lieu of taxes from wind farm developer Citizens Airtricity Energy LLC. Word rapidly spread among supervisors, many of whom showed up unexpected and uninvited for PILOT negotiations Feb. 1 at the county office building.
Now, some supervisors think DiVeronica should step down as chairman.
“Rocky has been working with administrative assistant Russ Lura and County Attorney John Campanie to usurp the authority of the board,” said Smithfield Supervisor Richard Bargabos. “They have gone behind our backs to insert themselves in these negotiations. This is unacceptable behavior from our chairman.”
But DiVeronica said he didn’t know Campanie or Lura had done anything to join negotiations until he returned from the state Association of Counties conference Feb. 1.
Bargabos said he heard DiVeronica tell Lura to tell Hage if he did not get what he wanted for the county, he would work to kill the project.
County enters negotiations
DiVeronica said he is upset with fellow supervisors who are thinking only of their towns.
“They are county supervisors, too,” DiVeronica said. “They’re getting money from the windmills and they think the county is asking for more money from the developers. We’re not. The developer won’t have to pay anything extra. Our share is going to come from the towns and schools.”
DiVeronica said the windmills are a burden on taxpayers through the work performed by the county through its planning department and demands on the infrastructure.
“They have to travel on county roads to get to those sites,” DiVeronica said. “We have to build and maintain those roads. We have to plow the roads in that area.”
DiVeronica said he doesn’t know why anyone was surprised, as he personally spoke to each of the supervisors involved to let them know his intent. He said he does not know why Lura did not return to the finance, ways and means committee with the information its members requested.
“But one committee doesn’t speak for the whole board,” DiVeronica said.
Overblown revenue claims?
According to Cary and Bargabos, DiVeronica and Lura may have gotten the idea there was more money available because of a report circulated by Tom Golisano, who recently has entered the green energy arena.
“It was basically a sales pitch,” Cary said. “I think Rocky took that back to the county, and they got all excited by the potentially overblown claims. The reason some other municipalities received higher PILOTs than we did is because those projects received Empire Zone designation.”
Stepanski said supervisors in the towns involved found out the county had entered negotiations through town and Airtricity attorneys.
“Recent events have my head spinning,” Stepanski wrote in a letter to fellow supervisors and obtained by Eagle Newspapers. “I have no idea who approved any of it ““ certainly not the four town boards”¦ 1. Encap Development was hired as a consultant. (I don’t know how they are being paid.) 2. Madison County hired an attorney to represent them and became an active participant in our PILOT.”
DiVeronica said he was not aware that Municipal Law required the decision to hire a consultant and outside counsel be approved by resolution from the board of supervisors. He said he would check on the law this week.
Stepanski said the towns and schools feel they have an agreement to take to their respective boards to move forward with the project. In his letter, Stepanski said attorneys for Madison County sent a letter to the town attorneys stating that Madison County is entitled to share the towns’ PILOT revenue on the same basis as a typical Industrial Development Agency PILOT agreement.
“We dispute this,” Stepanski wrote.
“There is very little revenue expected from this,” DiVeronica said. “The county may get $200,000 to $300,000 over 15 years, compared to about $1.3 million over 15 years to the towns and schools. Don’t quote me on those numbers, but I think it’s something like that. It’s a very small amount.”
Deal may vaporize
“The fact that this came down in the 11th hour really surprised us,” Puddington said. “That, and the fact that it didn’t go through the proper committee process. I feel bad about that because the county has been looked at for more windmill projects, and this could be especially harmful to the rural communities in the southern end of the county.”
Cary, Stepanski, Puddington and Bargabos believe the towns run a risk that Airtricity could pull out.
“They’ve done everything they have to do to make a good site,” Cary said. “If the county was going to be involved, Airtricity should have known that at the beginning, not at the end. We need to build the reputation that Madison County welcomes these projects.”
“Hage attended meetings to conduct negotiations, representing that he had authority to negotiate on behalf of the county, but he did not,” Bargabos said. “In fact, he completely misrepresented the board of supervisors’ position in the matter.”
“They’re protecting their towns, and I have a problem with that, too,” DiVeronica said. “I know we didn’t get in on the PILOT agreements in Fenner and Madison because they slipped through the cracks.”
According to Bargabos, Citizens Airtricity Energy LLC indicated at the Feb. 1 meeting that they wanted an agreement hammered out by the following day, but agreed to wait until this week.
Work on the physical site has begun with some materials prepared to be shipped, possibly this week.
No policy established
All supervisors polled said the unwritten law regarding windmill projects is that the planning department reviews any project earmarked for property zoned agricultural and helps towns site the windmills. There are also some additional regulations for windmills to be erected near county roads.
Supervisor James Goldstein (Lebanon) said the county’s historic policy or position, by intent or neglect, has been to not seek the county portion of taxes or in-lieu agreements on windmill projects.
“I think that if the county had drafted, researched, discussed and adopted a specific policy on the windmill issue, it is only fair, prudent and appropriate that any windmill developer, town, village and school district was informed of this at the early stages of the project discussion,” Goldstein said. “There needs to be a policy developed that is clear and consistently applied.”
“Jim Goldstein is 100 percent right,” DiVeronica said.
Supervisors say it is the smallest and most rural communities that will be negatively impacted if it becomes too expensive to locate windmills in Madison County.
“It’s a rural development project, and any revenue should go to benefit the towns affected,” Bargabos said. “All the approvals, roads, lasting visual impact and large setbacks prevent future growth or development ““ all major impacts are on the town.”
“If there is anything extra to be had, I would like to see that a certain portion goes toward green energy education and promote local agricultural pursuits,” Cary said. “The Fenner education center was negotiated with the Fenner contract, but it is for the benefit of everyone. If you don’t let windmills or any other entity come here without beating them to death financially, they’re going to go somewhere else. I’m really upset because they went around the committees.”
“This is not how our county works,” Cary said. “I think we have the best system around. I have tremendous respect for the other supervisors; I hope they come to their senses and stop this. I have faith they have enough common sense to work this out.”
Cary said the towns could never replace the quality of life of their residents should the wide-open farmlands be lost to other types of development. He said as other agricultural pursuits are lost, this is something that will generate some revenue while preserving the rolling green spaces in the county.
“Where did this come from?” Cary said. “It’s a shame if we lose this industry for the rural parts of this county.”
Asked if he would lead an effort to have DiVeronica resign as chairman, he said it depends on how DiVeronica responds to what as transpired.
“His behavior is unacceptable,” Bargabos said.
Puddington said he wouldn’t support any movement asking for DiVeronica’s resignation.
“They will have their chance at the end of the year to change that,” Puddington said. “My hope is that the county stays out of it after discussions Feb. 7, just like the previous two wind farms. Now we need to develop a written policy and move forward.”
“I know there’s going to be a lot of comments made,” Stepanski said. “When it comes time to vote, that’s what I’ll do. I think we need to get a policy in place for the future.”
“It came down the way it did because I am responsible for the county, not just the town of Lenox,” DiVeronica said. “They can’t call for my resignation as chairman. I tried to do this for the benefit of the county. I don’t work for Stockbridge or Eaton or any of those towns. They took the whole hog. Why should the schools benefit more? No students will be coming from there. They’ll have a fight if they think they’re going to get rid of me. They should be asking what can we do to help our towns and county? I feel sort of bad they feel they can bypass the county because they’re county supervisors.”
Supervisor Russell Cary (Fenner) said he has made presentations to the planning and long-range planning committees regarding the issues surrounding windmill development. He said those committees made the decision to stay out of windmill projects, leaving them to be handled by the towns. The county’s only involvement, he said, was helping the towns determine the best sites for them.
The current project calls for the erection of 23 windmills in the above towns and which affects the Madison, Morrisville and Stockbridge Valley school districts.
Cary, who became the county’s de facto expert in windmill projects through his involvement in the installation of the first wind farms in the county, said the towns carry the lion’s share of exposure for the projects and responsibility for their impact on the community.
“Everything in life has an impact,” Cary said. “In this case, that impact is very minimal for the benefit we get. There aren’t a lot of development opportunities that don’t need public sewers and water.”
To promote green power and encourage energy independence in the country, the state wrote a provision into the Real Property Tax Law that solar energy initiatives would be tax-free for the first 15 years of their existence. Windmills, Cary said, were added into that clause, as well. The law sunset in 2005, but was renewed last year. Unless the county’s board of supervisors passes a resolution to the contrary, wind-generated energy operations are not taxable for the first 15 years.
Cary said some people have wondered if the wind power movement might just dry up and blow away, but he doesn’t think so.
“The Fenner wind farm is nine years away from being on the tax rolls,” Cary said. “Once they are in, in my prediction, they will keep on rolling. The biggest expense is in the construction, and once that’s done, there most likely would always be someone willing to take them over.”
Wanting a slice of the pie
Supervisor Scott Henderson (Oneida Wards 1, 2 and 3) brought the issue to the finance, ways and means committee meeting at its regular meeting Nov. 2.
“There are a lot of proposed new windmills around the county,” Henderson said. “We need to discuss whether it’s appropriate to be included in the revenue stream generated by them and decide how much windmill construction do we want to allow?”
Henderson said the windmills have a negative impact on the aesthetic beauty of the county, but other members of the committee were not convinced.
“The county has no exposure, and at the end of the 15 years, they go on the tax rolls for everyone’s benefit,” Cary said.
“I suggest the supervisors all get together and make a decision so nobody feels disenfranchised,” Lura said.
“I don’t agree,” Cary said. “We should let the towns have their say.”
Lura said when the windmills go on the tax rolls, it will be at a depreciated value.
“Our PILOTs have been significantly lower than what some other municipalities have received,” Lura said. “There is a strong argument that all involved parties are more likely to get more money with more players sitting around the negotiating table.”
“We’re not talking about the county taking a piece of the town’s pie or the property owner’s pie, but there is an impact on tourism and aesthetics,” Henderson said.
“The county’s role should be helping the towns site them and encourage putting them in,” Cary said. “If there is more money there, it should go to the property owners or support agricultural pursuits. We are hiring this new AED position and trying to support farmers, well, this is their new crop. We’re trying to preserve these wide open farmlands.”
“The county planning department already is being supportive of that position,” Bargabos said. “It doesn’t cost the county any more money whether these projects exist or not.”
“I think if we can take the burden off the backs of taxpayers, we should try to do that,” Henderson said.
“The county’s role should be to review and comment,” Bargabos said. “That’s it. They aren’t doing any engineering or anything. The work of the planning department is only what’s required under Municipal Law. Because the county hasn’t passed a resolution making them taxable, they are exempt because of state law.”
“We know taxes don’t pay for x, y and z, but we do know they pay for the board of supervisors and fire and police protection,” Lura said. “We can’t predict what will happen in 15 years. The board should provide some direction and not just let these things happen.”
“If this is going to hurt the townships or schools, I would shoot it down,” said Supervisor Loren Corbin (Brookfield).
“I think we should try to get as much money from them as possible,” DiVeronica said. “We need to bring this to the full board.”
Bargabos suggested with the agreement of Corbin and Cary that the board of supervisors establish a task force to bring more information back to the planning and finance, ways and means committees.
The subject was not revisited in either committee’s meetings since November.
Loss of respect?
“I believe DiVeronica has lost a great deal of respect from the supervisors,” Bargabos said. “This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. This on top of headlines for not paying his taxes, abuse of the meals and mileage policy, etc. He is the chairman of the board and is a reflection on the entire board of supervisors. The chairman of the board should support and carry out the policies of the board of supervisors, not the other way around. The board of supervisors is the decision-making body in Madison County, not the chairman, the county attorney or the administrative assistant.”
Written by: Martha E. Conway, Staff Writer
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