Freedom – The March 28 meeting of the Freedom Selectboard presented all the plot shifts and surprise unveilings of a parlor room mystery, culminating in an unannounced appearance by a representative of Beaver Ridge Wind asking for another appraisal of the company’s three-turbine wind energy development.
Newly elected selectman Brian Jones took a lead role at the meeting, applying pointed hypothetical arguments and forensic accounting to several thorny areas of town business, starting with a petition from a group of residents unhappy with the vote at the March 11 annual town meeting to buy a new fire truck.
At that meeting, residents authorized the purchase of a new truck, based on an estimated price of $250,000. Fire Chief James Waterman said the actual purchase price would be $246,104.
Nancy Bailey-Farrar, who was present at Monday night’s selectboard meeting and claimed credit for circulating the petition, said she it wasn’t her own cause so much as an effort on behalf of numerous residents she met after the town meeting who didn’t realize the big-ticket purchase was going to be on the town meeting warrant and consequently didn’t attend, but had strong feelings about the expenditure when they heard about it later. Bailey-Farrar was at the town meeting and spoke in opposition to spending a quarter-million dollars on a fire truck.
“The town has never spent this kind of money,” she said, during the selectboard meeting. “… I don’t want it voted out. All I want is a better representation of the citizens of this town.”
Bailey-Farrar cited the 10-vote margin of the town meeting vote and said the item should have been addressed through a referendum. Jones noted that the 31-21 vote could also be seen as a 60/40 split, and asked how a referendum would be different from the secret ballot vote taken at the town meeting.
Jones said that, as long as he had lived in Freedom, he had never missed a town meeting.
“If I don’t show up at town meeting, I don’t have b****in’ rights,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the citizenry to be informed and those who don’t forfeit their rights to b****in’.” Jones claimed he could get 80 signatures – the amount collected by Bailey-Farrar – to recall Gov. Paul LePage, and worried that the petition would set a bad precedent.
Bailey-Farrar didn’t agree.“Why should 52 people decide an issue like this for the town?” she said.
“Because 52 people showed up,” Jones said.
There was some discussion of citizens’ right to petition and ultimately the selectmen agreed to hold a special town meeting for reconsideration of the fire truck purchase. Selectman Ronald Price said the meeting would be “as soon as we can have it,” probably in the next two to three weeks.
With the truck purchase now thrown into question, Waterman announced that the department had received a $10,000 donation by mail from Todd Presson of Beaver Ridge Wind toward the purchase of the truck.
“[Presson] is aware of the petition that was submitted and he doesn’t want [the money] back,” Waterman said.
Waterman also presented selectmen with several documents relating to the planned fire truck purchase, including a contract with the vendor that would up the price roughly $2,800 after March 31 and become void after one month. Waterman said the price for this kind of vehicle – a pumper truck with a high-capacity, front-mounted tank that Waterman previously said was necessary to fight fires on properties with long driveways – has gone from $190,000 to almost $250,000 in five years. All of the documents presented at Monday’s meeting seemed to suggest that a revote on the issue would mean paying more later.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, resident Steve Bennett asked to be appointed to the town’s Planning Board because he said he believes the town should have a wind energy ordinance. Bennett, who lives near the Beaver Ridge Wind turbines and has been a vocal opponent of the development, asked if BRW planned to return to the town to seek an abatement.
Price clarified that the company had not been seeking an abatement but a revaluation. After some back and forth, Price said he believed the company would be back to talk to town officials at some point to ask for a revaluation.
VillageSoup had received information prior to Monday’s meeting indicating that Presson might be visiting the selectmen on Monday and later in the meeting he arrived, taking a seat among the dozen-or-so residents in attendance. Presson arrived at the meeting after the check from his company had been presented by Waterman.
After a discussion of several unrelated inconsistencies in town expenses by Jones, Price yielded the floor to Presson, who asked the selectmen to consider reappraising the development.
The three-turbine Beaver Ridge Wind development was first assessed at $9.7 million in 2009. According to then-Selectwoman Carol Richardson, the valuation was based on cost estimates provided by BRW. Last year, the town upped the value of the development to $10.8 million based on estimates from the Marshall & Swift building costs guide, a common reference for assessors.
Last year, Presson wrote to the town to request a revaluation, offering a rough breakdown of the costs to build the turbines, which, according to BRW’s figures, totaled $9.46 million. In light of the previous valuation and anticipated depreciation of the equipment over time, he questioned the increase between 2009 and 2010.
Town officials hired an outside assessor, who confirmed the town’s assessment of $10.8 million.
“We don’t want to appeal, but we want the town to reconsider the value,” Presson said, Monday. “… We’re fine with a number that comes out of an agreed method, but I’m not sure I understand where that number [$10.8 million] came from.”
Presson said he believed the valuation should be based on actual costs, noting that the Marshall & Swift figures were comparable with either offshore wind installations or possibly smaller-scale projects, which would not benefit from an economy of scale in the same way as industrial developments. Presson said he contacted Marshall & Swift to try to find out what guidelines the company used to determine the cost of industrial wind turbines, but received no clear answers.
Jones went through the options for assessing a commercial development, including cost, market value and income, ruling out the latter two, as town officials had previously, for lack of data. In order to assess the turbines on cost, he said, the town would need verifiable documentation.
Presson said he could provide much of that documentation, but the cost of the turbines themselves was subject to a confidentiality agreement with the manufacturer, General Electric.
“So the information you provided is not verifiable,” Jones said.
Presson said he could provide verifiable documentation on everything but the turbines and said there was a possibility that GE would no longer require the cost of the two-and-a-half-year-old turbines to be confidential.
Jones said he would like to see BRW’s 2009 tax filings, which would indicate the capital investment claimed on the project. Presson seemed sympathetic but unsure if his company would be willing to provide that information.
“If you give us verifiable data, we can revisit this,” Jones said.
Selectman Clint Spaulding recommended the documentation be handled by Jacki Robbins, who did the last assessment for the town, but Jones disagreed.
“I’m greedy,” he said. “I want to see it myself.”
“Let me think nefariously,” Jones continued, before describing how for tax purposes a business would understandably try to minimize the value of its investment at the local level and maximize it at the federal level.
Presson said he would look into the possibility of providing tax records.
Earlier in the meeting, Jones dragged a pair of anomalous fuel expense figures from the town’s books through a similar train of thought.
The largest aberration was line indicating the town bought 553.6 gallons of diesel fuel from Freedom General Store in a single day in February. The next highest figure on the list of charges, Jones said, was around 238 gallons.
Spaulding said the large February purchase was probably due to a major snowstorm, but Jones balked. The town treasurer had told him a big storm would account for a maximum of 250 gallons. Jones asked how many gallons each of Freedom’s two trucks could hold and the miles per gallon and proceeded to do some calculations on the spot, concluding that each truck would have had to start with an empty tank and fill up three times in a single day.
Spaulding maintained it was possible.
“If I asked [Freedom General Store owner] Paul Flynn to see the [security] video, what would I see?” Jones asked. No one answered. Later in the meeting, resident Adrienne Bennett appeared to be dialing up the weather report from the week in question on a cell phone, reporting that none of the days in question indicated anything more than flurries.
The following day, Treasurer Erna Keller said town records indicated there were back-to-back snowstorms on the dates in question. The selectmen also learned from the owners of the general store that the 553.6-gallon figure was for 22 days worth of diesel sales, Keller said.
In other business at the March 28 meeting:
• Steve Bennett asked for action on a proposal he has put on two consecutive town meeting warrants to discontinue Beaver Hill Road and allow abutters, including himself, to convert the road to a recreational path that would be available for public use. Jones asked Bennett to draft language for the board to consider.
• Selectmen discussed a large number of open, appointed municipal positions, including three vacancies on the planning board, two on the appeals board, four on the budget committee, a code enforcement officer position (selectmen said they had received two applications) and a health officer. The board resolved to contact those members whose terms had expired to see if they were interested in continuing to serve.
• Meredith Coffin, the town’s representative to the Unity Area Regional Recycling Center announced an upcoming event called “Trash Talk,” to be held at the Mount View School Auditorium in Thorndike, Friday, April 15 at 7 p.m. Coffin said the event, which is open to the public, is being held to address residents’ questions and concerns relating to municipal waste disposal, including the potential closure of the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company and single stream recycling.
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