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Group to study errors behind ‘$2M mistake’

The group that was instrumental in bringing a municipal wind turbine to Portsmouth has been directed to undertake a study to show the errors in the procedure that led to what has been called “a $2 million mistake.”

The request for the study came from the taxpayer group Portsmouth Concerned Citizens, which also asked the council to draft an ordinance that would prevent such a “mistake” in future bond issues.

“Most people realize that the wind turbine is in trouble,” PCC President Larry Fitzmorris told the council. “It looks like the wind turbine is a $2 million mistake.”

The wind turbine, erected at Portsmouth High School in 2009, has been idle since June because of a faulty gear box. The town is evaluating whether to replace the gear box, with costs ranging from $611,000 to $703,000.

The council voted Monday to direct the Portsmouth Economic Development Committee to determine what errors were made in the procedure that led to the $3 million bond issue for the wind turbine voters approved in 2007. (The $2 million figure refers to the cost of the actual turbine structure.) Fitzmorris said the committee did a lot of good work and made strong arguments for the turbine leading up to the bond issue.

“The problem is, we made a serious mistake,” he said. “They [committee members] are best suited to determine where the mistakes were made.”

Nobody from the Economic Development Committee addressed the council.

Fitzmorris said he did not question the vote approving the bond issue for the turbine.

“We want to make it clear that this council didn’t make the decision,” Fitzmorris said. “It was the 2006-08 council that voted on it.”

Councilman James A. Seveney is the only member from that term still on the council.

Council Vice President Judi Staven called the study a good idea and made the motion to have the Economic Development Committee undertake it.

“We don’t know what’s wrong with the windmill yet,” she said. “This could be just a very tragic comedy of errors.”

Councilwoman Elizabeth A. Pedro asked that the council direct the committee to identify the errors in their proposal which may have contributed to the “system breakdown.”

Town Administrator John C. Klimm wanted to make sure the council did not intend for him to stop seeking a solution to the wind turbine situation.

Finance Director David P. Faucher, Acting Town Planner Gary Crosby and others are spending “almost every waking moment” trying to analyze the problem and the choices facing the town, he said.

“I want to make sure you’re not saying we should stop what we are doing to work on this ordinance,” Klimm said. “Our No. 1 priority is to do a full evaluation of what our options are to fix what we have or to present a financially feasible alternative.”

Klimm said he liked the idea of having the entity that was most involved in the original decision taking part in the study. He expects to be able to present the analysis to the council in mid-October.

Councilman Paul F. Kesson suggested that the Economic Development Committee gather all the documents and evidence it had collected to support the wind turbine proposal.

“One of the highest risks was buying this generator from a company that hadn’t produced anything,” Kesson said. “We are the recipients of one of those failed startup companies, probably to the tune of $2.3 million.”

Seveney said that information is posted on the Economic Development Committee’s website.

Motions for the study and the drafting of an ordinance governing bond issues both were passed unanimously.