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State reviews county’s books

ELLSWORTH – Spending wind farm revenue funds before they were received has landed Hancock County in the sights of the Maine Office of the State Auditor.

Principal Auditor Brian Jellison and Marcia McInnis, fiscal administrator of Maine’s unorganized territories, met with Hancock County Commissioners at a special meeting Tuesday.

“How do you pick a county?” asked Commissioner Percy “Joe” Brown. “Is it random?”

“There was a fund deficiency in the TIF fund,” Jellison said. “It indicated there were expenditures before there was revenue coming in.”

The revenue in question was coming from Blue Sky East, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Boston-based wind energy developer First Wind.

The commissioners in 2011 entered into an agreement to allow the company to erect 19 wind turbines in Township 16 at a project known as the Bull Hill wind farm. The facility is located near Eastbrook.

In exchange, Blue Sky East is to pay the county $315,000 a year for the next 20 years. Of that amount, $200,001 per year is designated to benefit community projects.

Community benefit funds are required by law from any company seeking an expedited development permit for a wind energy project. The money goes to local towns (or in this case, the county, because Bull Hill is located in an unorganized township) and must be used for specific purposes that benefit the general public. Allowed uses include public safety projects and tax relief.

Jellison said the state was alerted to the deficiency through routine analysis of county audit reports. The department also audits financial statements of the state of Maine and state expenditures for federal programs.

During a meeting break, Brown and Commissioner Steve Joy said the expenditure had been approved because a wind farm check was on its way to the county.

The expenditure involved a 150-foot emergency communications tower designed to increase coverage in northern Hancock County.

The money was used to pay a consultant to determine what equipment needed to go on the tower. The consultant was paid from a Hancock County Regional Community Center equipment fund.

Joy thinks the check was for $5,000 or $10,000.

“First Wind gave us the tower; we had to put the equipment on it,” Joy said.

The auditors were to spend Tuesday getting familiar with county operations.

McInnis said she and Jellison “would be coming back to pull transactions.”