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Wind energy, pool project stir debate on county's future  

MONTEREY – Must be an election year. Highland supervisors were challenged on the merits of both industrial wind energy, and a county swimming pool Tuesday for the better part of an hour.
Highland residents Bobby Pryor and Rick Griffin questioned the board on these issues with concerns about how taxpayer money was being spent.

“How are we going to pay for all of this?” Pryor asked, regarding the proposed pool. “Isn’t this thing going to have to be kept in service? How are we going to pay for maintenance year after year? How many people are going to use it? I wish we could just get something for the young people. Here we are accommodating all these people from up North and places like that, that has a retirement fund.”

Pryor said priorities were reversed: sources for additional county income need to be found before additional expenses are incurred. “It’s putting the cart before the horse with recreation before jobs,” he said.

Supervisor Robin Sullenberger defended the pool project, saying, “It’s all been grants and donations up to this point, no general fund money.” He also said one of the donations covers maintaining the pool for four years.

“One of the biggest problems that this county has is the fact that we don’t have a vital community here in terms of all the components that would bring in business opportunities or whatever here,” said Sullenberger.

“I’m not suggesting recreation is the No. 1 priority,” Sullenberger continued. “We need broadband service, we need a whole variety of things … In my job (as director of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership) I see that the communities that thrive have a comprehensive approach to things … recreation is included in that.”
Sullenberger said Highland County needs more people.

“We need young people, we need to keep our own people,” said Pryor. “It should be like a big family, but it’s not. Nobody knows each other … there’s none of that anymore.

“We blew it with U.S. 250 – didn’t get that (road improvement) in here … that would have gotten a little bit of money in here … Windmills … Look at all the money we wasted on that on both sides (on litigation). It’s a total waste. I’m in for anything that will help this county to better itself in any way,” Pryor said.

“Look at all these empty chairs,” he said. “I don’t know how you can hold on … without public involvement. I spoke to five people who told me there is no need to go over there (to the board meeting) because the supervisors are going to do what they want, they aren’t going to listen to us.”

“I read all these comments (in The Recorder) about people coming in here, so many are for the county, I wonder if the supervisors read The Recorder to see what their comments are. Do you read the editorials (and letters to the editor)?”

“I don’t mind reading the paper when it tells the whole truth,” said Rexrode. “When it don’t tell the whole truth … I hardly ever read it, to tell the truth. The paper has an opinion. People has an opinion. When you (Pryor) said you talked to five people since the last meeting, I’ve talked to 50. People talk to me on the street, they air their concerns, they tell me their problems … You can’t vote for one sector, you have to consider everybody. What’s the best for the whole county?

“We had an $89,000 increase (in spending) this year mandated by the state,” he said. “We had $10,000 growth (in revenue) last year. When we sit up here and see something that will bring revenue in … People come here and say we don’t want taxes and we don’t want growth … Tell Richmond to stop mandating without funding.”

Rexrode then addressed industrial wind energy, saying, “You can’t compare West Virginia to Virginia. We’ve already looked at the revenue stream. We’re not like West Virginia. We have to look beyond this year and next year.”

Rexrode turned his attention to the swimming pool. “You said you talked to five people (about the pool). The swimming pool isn’t just for a few people. Do you think (other people) would come if they had picnic areas? A place for the kids to play? They (recreation commission) are looking at a wellness center. Some place down the road you are going to have to put some tax funds in it … Hopefully not, hopefully it will take care of itself.

“I look at things different (than the public),” said Rexrode. “You have to have growth in all sectors, you have to create jobs. Since I’ve moved back (to Highland County) we have created 20 different jobs. It’s hard. If there is a factory that wants to work 20 people and it hits the Internet, there are places after them with incentives.”

He said people had to go to larger urban areas to use the skills they learned in college. “I know one boy graduated from college. He’s working in the field he is in in Atlanta, Ga.”

“I agree,” said Sullenberger. “Part of the problem is we have no workforce. A wood products company looked at the region, but there is no existing workforce in Highland County. It’s a chicken and egg problem. Nobody to work, not recruiting any businesses, the people that want to work here aren’t finding work and have to leave. It’s a challenge. We need to support initiatives like this to revitalize the community. We need young families, but they can’t live on the economy.”

Rick Griffin of Mustoe, who is a candidate for the board of supervisors, also addressed the board. “Sometimes we shoot or aim a little too high,” he said. “I lived in Chardin, Ohio. I worked for a woodworking industry (five employees). I think industries like that would be more prone to look at this area because of the work force.

“We may be sitting here looking at a possible source of jobs with Internet sales, crafts, woodworking, small business possibility, explore something smaller, maybe you can keep some of the people you have,” Griffin said.

“Talk to the economic development authority,” Sullenberger said. “They have been charged to come up with some ideas. I work on that kind of thing nearly daily.”

“There are some interesting challenges,” Sullenberger added. “Businesses that we can incubate here in Highland County and grow from within have a much greater chance of success than businesses that we can bring in. I know that because even in urban areas, that is a challenge.”

Griffin questioned the board’s decision not to fully fund the commissioner of revenue, who is his wife, Bobbie Griffin, who requested an additional $2,037 for overtime expenses. The board had earlier voted to give the commissioner $1,018.

Griffin said his wife agreed to work for less money four years ago and she had been running “bare bones.”

County administrator Roberta Lambert said the commissioner’s salary was cut by the state, not the county.

“I’m not going to tell you about bare bones. You have state offices all over the state, most don’t work an 8-hour day,” said Rexrode. “It’s hard to ask taxpayers for more money so some can work less time. It’s not personal. People has to understand people have got to work within the budget. Most of our budgets (over the years) are (balanced) within $2,000 in a $5 million budget.

“The commissioner of the revenue is authorized 1.7 positions. We gave them two … I am in town every evening and every weekend and I rarely see anybody up there after 5 o’clock,” he said.

Griffin asked how much money was spent on wind turbine litigation.“In the paper a couple of weeks ago, you were the one that said it, that each side has spent about $600,000,” said Griffin.

“Don’t always believe what the paper believes,” said Rexrode. “I said each side spent $300,000. McBride (owner of the wind energy company) spent over a million dollars; with state and legal fees you are looking at over $2 million … We expect to get $200,000 in tax revenue each year from wind turbines,” he said. “We can set the tax rate on wind turbines. You can set from $35,000 to $750,000 per year.

“BARC only uses 40 megawatts on their system,” Rexrode added. The proposed Highland New Wind Development utility is designed for 39 megawatts per year.

“We did a national averasge on what wind turbines were doing throughout the United States,” said Rexrode. “The average was $4,600 a year (per megawatt). We looked at $5,000 as a goal and we got better legislation than that.”

“Everybody says windmills won’t create any jobs,” added supervisor Lee Blagg. “If we can lower taxes 10 cents, young people can stay here. You are going to have to keep the young people on the farm or you are not going to have scenic views or anything. You can’t stay on the farm when you pay 15-20 percent of your gross income on taxes.

“You can cuss out windmills. You can say it’s the wrong thing, but the point is, you’d better suck it up and start looking for some things to generate some revenue,” said Blagg. “If the people that pitched a fit sues, sucked up 15-20 percent of their gross income every year to pay to Highland County, they wouldn’t be so quick to sue us.”

He told Pryor, “If you want to talk to me, I’m home every night, pick up the phone. We know the problems; we don’t have all the answers. Here’s where you are with the windmills – you can take it or leave it. You can vote for me or not vote for me. But it’s not going to change a thing.”

“How many jobs is that (wind energy project) going to create?” asked Pryor. “Are you going to destroy the whole top of the mountain?”

“In life, Bobby, you sacrifice something to get something,” Blagg replied. “You might put it on top of that mountain. You might save all those other mountains. You drive up and down these roads and I can show you places in Doe Hill that used to be open fields that are all grown up with locusts 40-50 feet tall. What do you want? You want brush, thorns, bushes, trash? Is that what you want to look at? Absolutely not. I don’t think anyone wants to see the windmills … You may never see it. It’s a conditional use permit, and nobody has looked at the conditions put on it.

“I’ve read petitions where they (wind turbines) would be on every mountain top. But it’s limited. We are looking at one site at the present time, that’s it,” said Rexrode.

“They are limited by the capacity of the line (39 megawatts); they are limited in what they can put there. It would be astronomically expensive to (expand capacity),” said Sullenberger. “The project down in West Virginia in Pendleton County was speculated to extend into Highland County, but that’s pure speculation. They were going to build a new transmission line to take the power from where that project was built into a substation somewhere near Franklin. A lot of things had to happen before that would ever occur.”

“Go beyond and read the West Virginia report,” said Rexrode. “Look at what they approved it for … the Public Service Commission felt it would have no adverse affect on tourism or property taxes,” said Rexrode. “They got their permit turned down because they left out a lot of things.

“People print what they want to print,” said Rexrode. “You read what is reported. We know what is going on,” said Rexrode. “Would you think $200,000 a year in revenue coming into the county would benefit the county?” he asked. “That is what the county would get.”

Rexrode concluded, “We as a board enjoy explaining to people where we come from.”

By James Jacenich
Staff Writer

The Recorder

5 July 2007

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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