ERIE – A proposed moratorium on wind power development failed again at Thursday’s Neosho County Commission meeting, and the wind discussion also spilled into the budget hearing.
This time, the moratorium was proposed by Commission Chair Gail Klaassen. The motion died without a second once again, although Commissioner Paul Westhoff has previously proposed a moratorium multiple times.
Klaassen’s proposal would have covered the entire county for one year after passage and would have exempted the Neosho Ridge Wind project currently being developed in the southwest portion of the county. It would have limited new development while commissioners consider possible zoning. It set fines of up to $1,000 a day, but allowed for soil testing and preparation. Westhoff’s previous proposal would have applied only to District 1, the district he represents. That district includes most of the rural area outside of Chanute, while Districts 2 and 3 divide Chanute and the rest of the rural areas.
Westhoff has proposed moratoriums before then-commissioners David Bideau and Jennifer Orr, and previously to current commissioners Klaassen and David Orr. Each time, his motion has died without a second.
Westhoff said outside of Thursday’s meeting that he did not like some of the wording in Klaassen’s proposal and it would have to be changed. He also wanted more time to study it.
Klaassen’s proposal was placed on the agenda less than three hours before Thursday’s meeting. It was prepared with assistance from County Counselor Seth Jones, while Westhoff’s was prepared with an attorney he declined to name.
Orr said he wanted discussion on Klaassen’s proposal, which would have required a second to her motion. Westoff said he wanted it brought back to the next meeting.
“I want some discussion,” he said.
The county has agreed to let Neosho Ridge developer Apex Clean Energy make improvements or modifications to county roads if needed for construction of 139 windmills on 44,000 leased acres to generate 300 megawatts of electricity. By statute, the project would be exempted from property taxes for 10 years, but apex has agreed to make payments to the county in lieu of taxes.
During the commission budget hearing, opponents of the wind farm said they wanted those payments to apply to lowering the property tax levy.
The 2020 budget approved Thursday evening includes an increase of $3 million in the assessed valuation, and an increased levy of 5.121 mills.
The budget passed 2-1 with Westhoff opposed.
The budget sets a levy of 53.541 mills, compared to 48.361 mills for 2019 and 45.711 mills for 2018.
Shirley Estrada, 16175 Hwy 47, urged the county pay a decent wage to 911 employees, but said she was adamantly opposed to the levy increase and that her taxes would increase exponentially.
Cheryl Burk, Thayer, said there is no reason for the increase because of the payment in lieu of taxes.
“It’s not a gift,” she said, adding that people would pay under protest. “It just can’t happen like this.”
Burk is a plaintiff in a lawsuit by 45 adjacent property owners seeking an injunction against the Neosho Ridge project, and Estrada has spoken against it to the commission multiple times, although she is not a plaintiff or adjacent property owner.
Orr said the county has not received the first payment, which is supposed to come 45 days after the start of construction. He questioned what legal fees have to come from the lawsuit.
Currently, the county is not a defendant in the suit.
Klaassen said the next payment will not come for 1 ½ years.
“Apex could hold that money to see what becomes of the lawsuit,” she said.
She said the levy increase comes mainly because of law enforcement. She said a $100,000 home would pay an additional $5 per month.
“Lowering taxes is great,” Klaassen said. “We have jeopardized our law enforcement.”
Westhoff said Allen and Labette counties have higher levies.
Klaassen said sheriff’s department employees gain experience then leave for higher pay.
“Our turnover is incredible,” she said.
Although law enforcement wages are exempt from a state tax lid, increases for other departments could trigger a general election for approval.
County Clerk Randal Neely, who replaced one employee late last year, announced later in the meeting that his election deputy, Rhonda Coronado, has accepted an election position with Johnson County. This gives his office a 100 percent turnover in a year.
Klaassen said Neosho County wages are not in line with other counties.
“We have to invest in our employees,” she said.
Estrada returned to rebut their comments, saying a budget is a forecast and the county has not received tax revenue, either.
Commissioners said the county has lowered taxes in the past.
“We’re cleaning up a mess,” Orr said.
The discussion became contentious when Orr said he was trying to be nice and some members of the audience audibly scoffed. Orr said he would ask that people be removed.
“I’m not going to play these games,” he said, adding that he had been badgered at a country club after last week’s meeting.
Estrada said wind project supporters said Neosho Ridge would decrease taxes.
“That’s the bill of goods that they were sold,” she said.
“We don’t have a wind farm yet,” Klaassen said.
During discussion with Kim Norris, 20980 146th, later in the meeting, Norris brought back Estrada to discuss Orr’s description of how people treated him.
Estrada said she did not recall any badgering, following or harassment and if Orr was intimidated, she told him, “That’s on you.”
“We’re not the mean, vicious people that we are portrayed (to be),” Estrada said.
Norris was on the agenda to discuss the wind project and budget. She said a county employee has said the project would now have 170 windmills instead of 139.
“Rumors go around a lot,” Klaassen said.
In early applications to the Federal Aviation Administration, Apex had shown a higher number of possible windmill sites.
Norris also said residents are seeking a moratorium because a company requested public information on all property in the county instead of just a specific area. The company is involved with construction of a power line, but Norris said a large group of people wonders what is going on.
Norris also raised the issue of who has keys to the human resources office since the departure of the HR director. Jones has some keys as county counselor.
“What authority do you have, a non-county employee?” Norris asked.
Westhoff said the payroll officer has had keys in the past.
Orr questioned why the issue was raised and Norris said she has problems with Jones because of his involvement with Neosho Ridge.
“We’ve had concerns from the get-go,” she said, because Jones is part of a firm that represents a Neosho Ridge-leasing landowner.
Spectator LeRoy Burk said an elected official should have the keys.
“You’re appointed, that’s part of it,” he said.
Klaassen and Orr were named to replace Bideau and Jennifer Orr, who resigned from the elected posts.
Norris said commissioners would not hear the same people repeatedly if they had an opportunity to speak.
“You guys have created a monster,” she said.
In other business, Appraiser Bob McElroy answered questions about why properties were being reappraised.
McElroy said state law requires the entire county be re-inspected every six years. He said there is a six-year plan to do this and his office re-inspects 3,000 parcels a year outside of Chanute.