Thursday, November 05, 2009

Naples School District, SCIDA and First Wind Legal Settlement by James Hall

Published in The Naples Record on Wednesday November 4, 2009 under the title Selling taxpayers short and subtitle - Why didn't NCS fully tax wind turbines? - Was the Naples School Board duped into settling with Cohocton wind farm developer?

Naples School District taxpayers,

Kimberle A. Ward Superintendent of Naples Central School responded to Cohocton Wind Watch on an expanded FOIL request, dated October 26, 2009

The NCSD Board voted to accept and settle a legal action against the Town of Cohocton, First Wind and SCIDA on the taxation of three industrial turbines that are located within the district.

These three turbines are presently being taxed at a value, established by the Cohocton Assessors, of $7,500,000 by the Atlanta Fire District.

Mrs. Ward’s response to the original FOIL provided a copy of a new PILOT that the School Board accepted as part of the settlement. The value of this new PILOT is lower than the original SCIDA PILOT for the First Wind project.

The independent taxing authority of the Naples School District to bill First Wind for the full $7.5 million dollar amount should be self-evident. SCIDA jurisdiction to force taxation districts outside of Steuben County to accept a ridiculously lower PILOT is an absurd claim. However, this legal principle and the interest of the Naples taxpayers do not seem to be a concern for the district’s law firm Harter Secrest.

Ronald Mendrick is the legal counsel for the NCSD and presented the settlement agreement to the board. He provided documents to the Board that were incomplete before their vote to accept.

Mrs. Ward’s letter states: “1. The Naples Central School District is not in possession of the documents you are requesting”.

The Schedule B of the new PILOT should have included the actual contracts of the leaseholder agreements with First Wind. Your Board was never provided those contracts for review. This is especially important since a leaseholder is pursuing a legal challenge that those leases are based upon fraud.

This is not a minor point, especially in light of the recent Department of Energy grant of $74,600,000 to First Wind. A poverty hardship for a PILOT is not in play. So why would SCIDA approve such a meager levy for First Wind? Why would the law firm for the district rollover and never advise the board to send out a tax bill for the entire amount that is already on the rolls?

It looks like SCIDA is in the business of selling tax exemptions. They receive 1% of the cost of the entire project for granting a PILOT. First Wind acknowledges to the Security and Exchange Commission, in their August 2008 IPO S-1 application that the Cohocton project cost was $265,000,000. Do the math. Executive Director of SCIDA, James P. Sherron salary is $245,000 a year.

Even more interesting is Harter Secrest attorney, Edward Premo representing the Town of Italy and defending an Article 78 filed by Finger Lakes Preservation Association. He vigorously argued, in Supreme Court, that SCIDA’s authority to impose a PILOT upon a jurisdiction in Yates County was acceptable. Harter Secrest consistency, both Ontario and Yates Counties must cede to Steuben County because SCIDA says so.
Are you getting the picture?

Superintendent Ward continues: “2. The Naples Central School District is under no obligation to assist to obtain the documents from SCIDA”.

Protecting the abuses of SCIDA is a full time profession engaged in by the high price law firms. How much did Harter Secrest charge the NCSD for their legal expertise? You had better have your own CPA ask your school board to explain the bill of some $125,000.

Moreover, what was the First Wind settlement, you ask? A promise to pay $80,000 in cash and a lower PILOT amount. With a deal like this the taxpayers will find no relief in their school taxes. Your school board was duped, are lax in their fiduciary duties, are complicit in the protection of SCIDA or simply do not care if ordinary property owners get the shaft. You decide which is the most likely.

With this kind of affable legal representation, Harter Secrest may just be ready to merge with Harris Beach, the SCIDA law firm.

James Hall for CWW

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