While some do see tight restrictions on wind-project PILOTS as just another way to keep them out of sensitive areas, many others have far more basic problems with these tax abatements. For example, while tax exemptions are supposed to be granted to improve the county’s economic health, nobody has shown wind projects bring any positive economic impact outside of taxes. There are few local jobs produced either during construction (600 foot wind tower construction is not a skill normally found in the north country) or for the projects themselves (there is a scant handful of jobs at Maple Ridge, for example, which has way more towers than have been proposed at any Jefferson County site).
It’s spring. Time for crocuses, outdoor baseball practice, walks in the park – and the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency to resume its tortured path to unfettered payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements for any wind-power developer who strolls into the county.
Last fall, the IDA proposed a revision to its Uniform Tax Exemption Policy that would have taken decision-making powers away from local taxing districts and placed it solely in the hands of the IDA. Given the questions that have always arisen about whether such facilities should get local tax breaks, this proposed change met considerable opposition in some quarters.
It was intense enough that the committee charged with updating the policy agreed informally that wind projects would not be included in this section of the policy. In the ensuing months, that seems to have been forgotten.
If you listen to CEO Donald C. Alexander, the people opposed to including wind projects in the policy are “misguided.” He dismissively suggests that those opposed want to use PILOT agreements – specifically, the denial thereof – as a way to keep wind towers out of Jefferson County.
That line of thinking is very convenient for those who view wind-power projects as an enormous cash cow. Keep in mind here that JCIDA relies heavily on fees it charges developers for its services. To get a PILOT, you have to pay to play.
And while some do see tight restrictions on wind-project PILOTS as just another way to keep them out of sensitive areas, many others have far more basic problems with these tax abatements.
For example, while tax exemptions are supposed to be granted to improve the county’s economic health, nobody has shown wind projects bring any positive economic impact outside of taxes. There are few local jobs produced either during construction (600 foot wind tower construction is not a skill normally found in the north country) or for the projects themselves (there is a scant handful of jobs at Maple Ridge, for example, which has way more towers than have been proposed at any Jefferson County site).
So when you strip away the hyperbole from the IDA, the actual economic impact, outside of reduced tax revenues and IDA fees, is less than any one of the Valentine brothers’ Nice N Easy stores – which pay full taxes and employ 15 to 20 people.
Others opposed to local tax exemptions for nearly any renewable energy project save perhaps hydro have a fundamental problem with adding local money to the enormous subsidies that these businesses already get.
Both wind and solar energy already get subsidies from the federal and state governments. In the case of wind, very large subsidies. So through our federal and state income tax payments, we are already subsidizing Big Wind (and there is no small wind). Many people aware of the enormous tax benefits already provided to wind-power projects are rightly insulted by these companies coming to every county they wish to occupy with their hand out, looking for more public money to throw up their towers.
Still others are concerned with the nasty little side effects of wind projects. Jefferson County, especially western Jefferson County, is part of one of the major flyways for migrating birds in the U.S. Bird and bat kills are unavoidable and many people object to wind projects for this reason alone.
Others believe that wind projects drag down the aesthic value of unique treasures, Lake Ontario’s Eastern basin and the Thousand Islands. They have legitimate concerns that a series of wind projects in the region could actually damage the county’s economy by turning away tourism and devaluing the many vacation homes from which the county, schools and towns derive big, low-maintenance tax revenues.
To all of these arguments, Mr. Alexander is tone deaf. He simply cannot admit that any development that can yield nice fees for the IDA may not be appropriate for a tax exemption.
He told reporter Ted Booker this: “They may very well want to take it (wind PILOTS) out of the policy, but I don’t know why they would,” he said. “What we’re trying to do here is create economic opportunities for Jefferson County, and when you develop a tool it needs to try to accommodate as many complexities as possible.”
The only problem is, the only real benefit to the county comes from property taxes – and Mr. Alexander wants to vastly reduce those. He conveniently ignores the IDA’s real mission and he badly misjudges how a large segment of the population views tax abatements that potentially cause more harm than good.
It’s time for the county Legislature to forcefully join the argument. Many members have become increasingly skeptical of this and other IDA actions, and strong input on the revisions to the exemptions policy is a good place to begin a closer relationship between county government and its IDA.
The good citizenry of Jefferson County should also weigh in. Mr. Alexander’s business address is: Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency, 800 Starbuck Ave., Watertown, NY 13601. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His phone number is 315-782-5865. Give him a call or send him a letter, let him know what you think of his proposal.
Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times.
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