FARMINGTON – County commissioners heard testimony from Franklin County residents at a public hearing held Thursday evening, in regards to the proposed tax increment financing plan for the Kibby Wind Power Project. The commissioners have stated that they will make their final decision Tuesday, at their regularly scheduled meeting.
The plan would capture 75 percent of the taxes raised by the $270 million project for the first 10 years of operation, then 50 percent for the 10 years after that. Sixty percent of those captured revenues, capped at $8.9 million over the 20 years, would go to the project developer, TransCanada, a Canada-based energy supplier. The other 40 percent of captured revenues, capped at $4 million, would be used to fund a series of Franklin County investments in the Unorganized Territories.
The plan has been developed after meetings between TransCanada and the commissioners, as well as the advice of the Eaton Peabody Consulting Group. That organization has been retained by Franklin County to help develop the agreement. TransCanada is reimbursing the county for the consulting fees.
Some last minute alterations introduced to the audience at Thursday’s public hearing include expanding the public safety and fire protection equipment funding portion of the U.T. investment plan to include telecommunications equipment. According to Eaton Peabody Consultant Greg Mitchell, the estimated $250,000 garnered through the TIF could be used for radio repeaters or other systems to improve communications between public safety vehicles.
The “fail safe” agreement between TransCanada and the county commissioners has also been further fleshed out. Previously, it would simply state that the company would be forced to invest $150 million in taxable revenue. Now, the agreement states that until TransCanada has at least $150 million invested in the site, it does not receive it’s portion of the funding captured through the TIF plan.
Those testifying were asked to restrict their comments to the TIF, not whether or not the project itself was a good or bad idea. Those speaking in favor of the TIF included Western Mountains Foundation President Larry Warren, who has been involved with the Maine Huts and Trails project.
“I think that it’s fair and appropriate for the county and the residents of the county to look to wind power,” Warren said.
“Franklin County stands to gain a great deal from the TIF negotiated between the commissioners and TransCanada.,” Alison Hagerstrom said, representing Greater Franklin County Development Corp. “We need to recognize that this project has not been approved by the board of directors at TransCanada. Approval of this TIF will go a long way to ensuring the development of the project.”
TransCanada representatives have said that the weakness of the dollar and other internation factor have put the project on a “financial bubble.” They have also stated that though the Kibby wind farm has been approved by state agencies, it still must be approved by the TransCanada’s board of directors.
Several Franklin County municipal authorities, organizational leaders and private citizens were present at the meeting. Several of those attending made their opposition to the plan known.
Carrabassett Valley Selectman Lloyd Cuttler, who spoke in favor of the project at Land Use Regulation Commission committee meeting last year at Sugarloaf, said that he opposed the TIF.
“They would have you believe that this TIF is necessary for the project to be approved,” Cuttler told the commissioners. “I can’t believe that they would spend millions of dollars to go through this process if they didn’t think that the project would be approved. I desperately want these to be built, but this TIF won’t make or break this project. We should let it stand on its own merits.”
Many of those speaking echoed earlier criticisms of the plan. Some said that by capturing 75 percent, and eventually 50 percent, of tax money that would have gone to the state, the TIF agreement will reduce the project’s ability to mitigate the county tax burden on Franklin County’s 22 organized communities. If no TIF agreement were to be implemented, the project has been estimated to reduce the county tax contributions of all 22 communities by a total of $106,000 on an annual average. High valuation communities would see the most benefit; low valuation communities, the least. The necessity of the TIF, weighed against potential tax relief has brought some municipal officials, such as Carrabassett Valley Town Manager David Cota, out against the plan.
“TIFs were originally to support developments that would not otherwise occur,” Conrad Heeschen of Wilton, said. “More and more it seems to instead be entitlement.”
Others questioned the true value of the $4 million U.T. investment plan.
That plan calls for spending $1 million over 20 years to make scenic byway improvements on Routes 17 and 27. This could include the installation of outlooks and signage.
A total of $800,000 would be spent on various tourism planning and marketing projects. This includes planning, such as studying ways to make the U.T. more desirable to visit, to plotting and mapping trail systems, to advertising. In Aroostook County, for example, snowmobile trails have been plotted utilizing the Global Positioning System.
TIF money would also fund a commercial revolving loan fund for businesses in the U.T., provide money to create local matches for grants, snowmobile trail signage and pay for the administration of the TIF itself. Other parts of the investment plan would pay half of what Franklin County typically gives to the Greater Franklin Development Corporation and Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments. Utilizing TIF funds for this would allow the county to not pay this $31,350 annual expense out of the funding garnered through general taxation.
“These projects may turn out to be beneficial,” said Dain Trafton, of Phillips, “but there is no guarantee of this.”
The public hearing has not been closed, and further comments can be submitted to the commissioners. These comments will receive the same weight as all other testimony submitted at the meeting. The hearing will be officially closed at 9 a.m., on June 3. Commissioner Gary McGrane, of Jay, said that the final decision on whether to submit a TIF proposal to the state would be made that day.
By Ben Hanstein
29 May 2008
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