GREENTOWN – Opponents of Eastern Howard Schools’ wind turbine project are getting a late start on their petition process, but are hoping they’ll have enough time to stop the project.
Greentown residents Jeff and Susie Cox picked up legal documents to start the petition drive from county officials Tuesday, and will have until March 12 to gather 100 signatures.
If they can acquire that many signatures from voters and/or property owners in the Eastern Howard Schools district, they’ll be able to force a showdown between opponents and supporters of the project.
Even as the anti-turbine petition drive starts, there is controversy over how many days the petitioners should have to collect signatures.
Howard County Clerk Kim Wilson said Wednesday she asked the schools to restart the approval process for the project. She said she didn’t receive a public notice from the schools, as required by law.
The schools held a public meeting Feb. 9 to comply with the state law governing public notification on taxpayer-funded projects.
The Coxes, who said they spent two days simply trying to locate the agency in charge of petition drives, arrived at the county voter registration office Feb. 17.
Voter registration officials were caught unprepared for the Coxes’ visit, however, and Wilson blamed a subsequent delay in getting the Coxes the necessary petition forms on a lack of notification from the schools.
Voter registration officials conferred with Wilson and assistant county attorney Alan Wilson, and then sent a request to the school district for a “restart” of the process, the county clerk said.
She said the schools’ outside legal counsel, from the Ice Miller law firm in Indianapolis, nixed the request, saying it was their understanding the schools had mailed the notice, as required.
“[The Ice Miller attorney] said that the notice was on the checklist they gave to the schools, and that the school officials told them they’d followed the check list,” Wilson said.
Thursday, however, Ice Miller attorneys sent a letter to Eastern Superintendent Tracy Caddell, which claimed the schools had still operated within the law, even if a notice hadn’t been mailed.
According to Ice Miller, the start of the petition period began the date of the hearing, which was also when the schools published a legal notice in two local newspapers.
By law, the schools are required to inform the public of a pending project both by the publication of a legal notice and also by mailing the same notice to the county clerk’s office.
The Ice Miller attorneys concluded that the schools complied with the second part of the requirement by faxing the notice to the voter registration office on Feb. 16.
Caddell, who declined to be interviewed, said in an email statement Wednesday, “Legal counsel has advised us that our steps are compliant with the statute.”
The Coxes received their petition counterpart forms Feb. 21, giving them 21 days to complete their petition drive.
They are trying to stop a project that school officials expect will cost $5.2 million, including interest, to be paid over a period of up to 19 years.
Representatives of Performance Services Inc., Indianapolis, said the 287-foot tower will save the schools about $6.1 million over a 25-year life span.
School officials are expecting federal grants to pick up about $1.47 million of the project’s cost, with the remainder to be paid from local property taxes.
The tax impact of the project is expected to be 21.5 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, without factoring in the federal contribution.
For a homestead valued at $150,000, that equates to between $105 and $145 a year, according to figures provided at the Feb. 9 school hearing. For farmland valued at $140,000, the annual impact would be between $217 and $301 per year.
School officials didn’t respond to a request to recalculate the tax impact to account for the federal grants.
By arranging the lease payments so that the bulk of the project cost is paid off after 2022, school officials are expecting to keep the local debt service property tax levy from increasing, meaning taxpayers won’t see an increase in their property taxes from the project.
The financing plans under consideration would have the schools making annual debt service payments of $186,000 between 2013 and 2021. Beginning in 2022, the schools would pay either $383,000 a year until 2030, or $590,000 a year until 2026, depending on whether the schools opt to pay back the original bonds over 19 years or 15 years.
The balloon payments in later years would be timed to coincide with the retirement of current school debts, which will all be paid by 2021.
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