Nearly 150 students, some traveling by way of gravel roads, attend the Fairfaix R-III School in the state’s far northwestern corner.
Staff members say they aren’t sure when the district’s first school building was built on Main Street. Today, teachers park in a lot filled with potholes, and a vocal student practices next to an electrical junction box behind the stage.
Lately, money rolling in from Atchison County wind farms promises to upgrade the no-frills environment of rural schools throughout the region. Fairfax has used wind revenue to begin long-deferred building maintenance, give teacher raises and purchase a bus.
“It’s incredibly significant,” said Dr. Jeremy Burright, the superintendent. “It’s the primary new industry that’s coming into Northwest Missouri and these rural communities. It is the primary economic development at this time.”
Wind, though, doesn’t always blow your way. Now Burright and others in Northwest Missouri worry that new developments in the wind industry could shortchange the schools, counties and ambulance districts that have just started reaping the benefits of turbines going up across the region. They fear public utilities will begin developing their own wind farms, which under state law means the tax revenue goes through Jefferson City rather than to local schools like Fairfax.
“You know, if a public utility buys that farm out, all those taxes go somewhere else,” said Josh McKim, executive director of Nodaway County Economic Development. “Whether you like wind or not, if they’re here, we want that tax revenue to stay here. I really don’t see this as a pro- or an anti-wind issue.”
Up until now, private companies like Enel Green Power in Atchison County and Tradewind Energy in Nodaway County build their own wind farms and sell the power to utilities. Like other private companies, their turbines are assessed locally and the tax revenue is distributed to nearby schools, counties, ambulance districts and other taxing entities.
Property owned by public utilities, like Kansas City Power & Light and Ameren Missouri, is taxed differently. Their property is assessed through the State Tax Commission, with revenue distributed more broadly across the utility’s network.
So when Ameren Missouri announces plans to purchase a wind-generation facility in Atchison County, local schools have little to gain because that revenue ends up far from Northwest Missouri. Atchison County stands to lose $4.6 million in revenue, but that number could double if Ameren moves forward with plans to buy a second wind farm in the county.
The stakes are high. State Rep. Allen Andrews, R-Grant City, said Atchison County already receives $3 million or more in tax revenue from wind-generation projects. Andrews, whose district includes Atchison and Nodaway counties, filed legislation that would keep tax revenue local, even if a public utility owns a wind farm.
“This is a tremendous thing for rural Missouri,” Andrews said. “These are huge numbers for our local areas. There hasn’t been anything like it.”
Andrews’ legislation, House Bill 220, passed 151-1 in the House this month and now heads to the Senate.
Legislative action is critical, Andrews said. Renewable energy companies can be relatively new businesses with high levels of startup debt, so they would be prime candidates for a sale as the industry becomes more mature. Public utilities, which are required by Missouri state law to generate 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2021, would be a likely buyer.
“This is quite possibly the most significant piece of legislation I will move in my time in the capital,” Andrew said.
McKim voiced concern that support for the entire industry becomes shaky if local property owners aren’t guaranteed that the revenue stays local. Wind farms have generated opposition in some places, especially in DeKalb County.
“You’re looking at major pushback,” he said. “I know a number of property owners where the big selling point hasn’t been necessarily the additional revenue to them. It has been the understanding that they are supporting their local schools, their local fire departments, their local ambulance departments. They are helping to shore up those organizations.”
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