Saturday, January 28, 2023

IDA does us wrong, say Washington Co. chiefs

By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor

Members of the Washington County Board Supervisors, seemingly alarmed by the Warren-Washington County Industrial Development Agency’s decision in December to extend PILOT and other tax incentives to a planned solar farm in Queensbury — despite objections from both the Town of Queensbury and the Queensbury School District — called the IDA to task during their Personnel and Finance Committee meeting last week.

Committee chair, Hebron Supervisor Brian Campbell, who also sits on the IDA as a representative of Washington County, had joined in the IDA’s unanimous vote last month to approve the incentives for a 5 megawatt CVE Solar Farm in Queensbury — but at this meeting he described a seeming change of heart.

“I’ve come to the conclusion,” Mr. Campbell said, “that there is no reason to give any mortgage or sales tax abatement on a solar project, at all.”

The immediate issue is a 750-acre 100 megawatt solar farm project proposed by Boralex Hydro Operations in Fort Edward and Argyle, much larger than the 5 megawatt CVE project in Queensbury.

Warren-Washington IDA Executive Director/CEO Chuck Barton was at the meeting and spoke briefly to defend or explain IDA actions.

New York State offers its own incentives to solar farms as “green” energy, and allows local entities — municipalities, schools, counties and regional IDAs — to extend additional incentives.

Municipalities and school districts may also opt out of such tax abatements in advance — as did both Fort Edward and Argyle, among others, Mr. Haff noted.

The concern is that the Warren-Washington IDA in December acted despite such opt-out decisions, and despite town objections, superceding both and potentially costing significant local revenues.

Moreover, they add, the IDA has incentive to do so because of the fees it collects when offering those benefits.

Dana Hogan of Kingsbury recapped the Queensbury CVE Solar hearing and vote, concluding, “They’re using sales tax abatement to incentivize them, in exchange for fees that they receive.

Mr. Hogan enumerated the IDA benefits to CVE, including projected sales tax abatement of $300,000 in building materials, $162,000 mortgage tax, and about $2.5 million in Payment in Lieu of Taxes (“PILOT”) benefits over 15 years.

“All told, in exchange the IDA gets a fee of almost $100,000 for granting those benefits, and over the objection of the town and the school district.

“Then, to add insult to injury, the (reduced) PILOT payments of $32,500 per year over the next 15 years, about $600,000 — in exchange for $3 million in benefits, Queensbury town, school and county have to share $600,000 over 15 years for a project that brings little to no permanent long-term jobs or business, and brings no sales tax growth to Warren County.”

Mr. Hogan urged, “Take those numbers you just heard and multiply by 20,” for the Boralex project. It’s located “90 percent in Fort Edward, 10 in percent Argyle,” another Committee member noted off screen.

‘Dissolve the IDA?’

“I personally don’t think the County and the IDA’s interests — they’re not even close to being aligned any further,” Mr. Hogan said.

Dana Haff of Hartford said, “If the IDA solicited somebody to seek a PILOT, and the IDA gets a fee…you are now biased and subjective. I think that violates the whole idea of weighing a project objectively.”

“I think we ought to look at dissolving the IDA,” Mr. Hogan said. “I don’t think they’re serving our interests…It’s gone too far. I think you’re seeing too many dollars with these solar projects and you’re intervening.

“…If we’re not going to dissolve the IDA, we have to remove the members that we have representing Washington County and start looking out for our interests in this county.”

Addressing towns that have opted out of the tax incentives — including Fort Edward and Argyle — Mr. Haff warned, “They can come behind you and do whatever they want. They can undercut you…and you’re forced to take it.”

He also offered to help those who have not opted out to still do so.

Mr. Haff said, of solar projects, “They get so much money from the Federal government already, they don’t need incentives. They’re only asking for the PILOT for a better bottom line. But if they come and get zero PILOT — the only way the IDA gets a fee is if they step into the party. They’re party crashers.”

Brian Campbell’s ‘epiphany’

Mr. Campbell, replying to a fellow committee member, said his “epiphany” came after the Queensbury decision, and with further information.

“I look at it this way,” Mr. Campbell says now. “First of all, our region isn’t pro-solar no matter how you look at it. Hell, they’re not even pro electric cars.”

He said local elected officials, including those serving at the state level, are “on a different page” than the state. “We need to be in unison at to how this goes, and working together is what’s important. It’s important the IDA is working together with our communities and that we are all working for economic development that makes economic sense.

“It doesn’t make economic sense to throw away our sales tax and our mortgage tax.”

“The idea, with most things would come with a business proposition with employees, the idea is to build a business, that would offset that giving, and the communities get that back ten-fold. That can never happen with these solar things.

“…If 20 solar projects were coming and with no incentive only 15 came, we actually won the battle. You can’t stop them. The state won’t let you really stop them. You just can make them not incentivized.”

Later, Mr. Campbell opined, “It’s all about money. It’s not about saving the world.”

The Warren-Washington IDA was to meet again on Tuesday at 4 p.m.

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