BARNSTABLE – The county’s legislative board voted Wednesday to ask the state’s inspector general and attorney general for help in understanding the finances and operations of two regional energy agencies.
At a packed meeting in the basement of the Barnstable District Courthouse, the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates voted 62.44 percent to 34.53 percent to forward persistent questions about the Cape Light Compact and Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative to state officials.
The assembly includes one member from each Cape Cod town, each of whom control a percentage of the vote based on the population of his or her community. Orleans delegate Christopher Kanaga, who controls 2.73 percent of the vote, was absent.
The assembly’s decision to ask for assistance from state officials comes after years of criticism of the two energy agencies from residents and local officials, which continued at Wednesday’s meeting.
A special committee created by the assembly in 2012 supported concerns from residents – many of whom oppose land-based wind energy projects on the Cape – about transparency, finances and governance of the two organizations.
“The concerns raised by the citizens of Barnstable County still need to be dealt with,” said Lilli-Ann Green of Wellfleet, a member of Windwise-Massachusetts and its Cape Cod affiliate.
Green and others in the audience questioned whether audits of the compact’s finances were comprehensive enough to uncover problems with the transfer of funds from the organization to the cooperative.
The compact was formed in 1997 to buy electricity in bulk, provide energy efficiency programs and advocate for customers on the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard.
The cooperative was created in 2007 to pursue renewable energy projects on the Cape and Vineyard but has survived thanks to millions of dollars in financial and legal support from the compact.
“Taxpayers and ratepayers are not synonymous,” said West Tisbury Selectman Richard Knabel, touching on a core concern over the interaction between the two organizations.
Critics have argued that the cooperative uses money the compact collects from ratepayers to develop solar energy projects that benefit towns and taxpayers but don’t directly reduce electric rates.
Compact officials defended their work and asked that the assembly vote against requesting help from the attorney general and inspector general.
The compact’s Chatham representative and treasurer, Peter Cocolis, said the multiple funding streams for the organization are difficult to compare to personal or municipal budgets.
The inspector general investigates three categories: fraud, abuse and waste, Cocolis said.
The compact’s finances are audited regularly, including recently by Sullivan, Rogers and Co., a leading auditor in the state that specializes in those areas, he said.
A Nov. 27 decision by the state Department of Public Utilities approving an additional charge on electricity bills for a municipal electric aggregator in Lowell affirmed that the compact was acting appropriately in collecting a similar charge, compact Chairwoman Joyce Flynn said.
“We’re operating as we are supposed to operate,” Flynn said.
Not true, said Brewster resident and vocal compact critic Christopher Powicki.
The DPU has specifically ordered the compact to redo its aggregation plan, a process that is underway now with little opportunity for input from the towns or public, he said.
And while the compact’s energy efficiency programs are a perfect example of the value of a regional approach, the organization’s power supply program is a perfect example of how such an approach can go wrong, Powicki said.
Another vocal critic of the two groups, Connecticut resident and Cape visitor Eric Bibler, said that the problems go back to citizens who were stonewalled in their attempts to access information about cooperative projects.
“If there was no wrongdoing, they can exonerate all of them,” he said about an investigation by the attorney general and inspector general.
One of the most impassioned arguments came from assembly speaker Ronald Bergstrom of Chatham who said that as a selectman he was present when the compact was first formed and, despite Flynn’s assertion to the contrary, the primary purpose was to secure lower-priced electricity, something which has not occurred.
“To me it’s not a question of dishonesty; it’s a question of appropriateness,” Bergstrom said.
Harwich delegate Leo Cakounes, who proposed the resolution to ask the attorney general and inspector general for help, said he didn’t feel he could tell the people who elected him that the county is doing the right thing handling their money.
“Please make no mistake about it: These two organizations do not have a checkbook,” he said. “They use our accounts.”
Cakounes said he sees no downside in asking for help from the state.
“I do see a downside,” said Falmouth delegate Julia Taylor.
The compact has already spent great deal of money and resources on legal and other expenses related to the ongoing criticism, she said.
And, whatever the attorney general and inspector general find, the criticism is unlikely to go away, she said.
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