SKOWHEGAN — Somerset County Commissioners voted Monday night to approve the creation of a tax increment financing, or TIF, district in the county’s unorganized territory surrounding a proposed wind farm. The plan was approved unanimously.
The decision followed a public hearing attended by about 40 people in which members of the public debated the benefit of creating a TIF, most of them saying they were in favor of the plan because of the economic benefit it would provide the county.
“I think tonight I changed my mind because of some very eloquent discussions that were had. It was not a waste of time and I will support this TIF,” said Commissioner Phil Roy prior to Monday’s vote.
TIF agreements, which are established through the state Department of Economic and Community Development, capture tax revenues from new development and dedicate them to town or county economic development. Such agreements also provide tax relief for the developer, in this case First Wind, the company proposing the wind farm. Under the TIF proposal approved Monday, the project is expected to generate between $100 million and $128 million in new assessed value in Mayfield Township, which would allow the county to keep about $11 million in new tax dollars.
First Wind would also save about $10 million over the next 30 years in money that would otherwise be collected as tax. Taxes from the unorganized territories across the state are collectively spent by the state, so tax money generated in the area does not always get spent in the area it was collected in.
“The amount of money the county will get stays in the county, so all the communities in the county will benefit. Everyone here knows Somerset County is one of the poorest in the state. All of the manufacturing jobs are gone. If we do away with the TIF, the state will benefit. I really think the Somerset County Commissioners should agree to commit to a TIF,” said James West, a resident of Bingham.
Meanwhile, William Van Tuinen, a resident of Madison and an assessor in Madison and Skowhegan, urged the commissioners to reject the TIF proposal. Creating the TIF would hurt Harris hydroelectric plant, which is currently the largest taxpayer in the unorganized territories of Somerset County, Van Tuinen said.
“I’ve worked with several towns over the years to develop TIF policies, and one of the most fundamental guidelines is that you don’t give a TIF to a company that is going to compete against existing companies in the district. Whereas the project will be generating power, it has the potential to compete against this existing business,” Van Tuinen said.
The county tax rate in Somerset County is over two dollars per $1,000 of assessed value, which is high, and is only expected to increase following local devaluations at the Sappi Fine Paper in Skowhegan and Madison Paper Industries in Madison, Van Tuinen said. “I think sheltering [First Wind] from the county tax is a bit imprudent,” he said.
Suzie Hoekmeyer, a resident of The Forks, said she supported the TIF because it would provide much-needed finances for trail maintenance and road maintenance in the area.
“The TIF in my opinion gives us an opportunity to look forward to something that could help us,” Hoekmeyer said. “I’m not a wind lover, but I know that TIF or no TIF the permit for the project is already on the table. The area really needs all the help it can get.”
Jack Lord, a resident of Bingham, also encouraged commissioners to accept the TIF, saying it would provide needed money for ATV and snowmobile trail maintenance.
“Things would be better if we kept the money right here. All we have left to sell in this county is mother nature,” he said.
Karen Bessey Pease, a resident of Lexington Township, urged commissioners to reject the TIF proposal, saying that First Wind had already proved their financial capacity to the state and that there was no need to return taxpayer money to the company.
“I realize that First Wind has received their permit to build the Bingham Wind Project, but as a resident and taxpayer in the unorganized territory, I would prefer that you don’t return any money to this developer,” Bessey Pease said.
The Bingham Wind Project was originally planned to be 62 turbines, but that number has been reduced to 56 because the company switched to a different type of turbine that they say will have a greater capacity to generate power with fewer turbines. Under the current construction plans, there will be 23 turbines in Mayfield Township, 22 in Kingsbury Plantation and 11 in Bingham, said David Fowler, director of development for First Wind. The company has also established community benefit agreements, which provide payments on a per-turbine basis to communities. Fowler said Mayfield Township should receive about $280,000 annually for the next 20 years. That money can be used by the county commissioners anywhere in the county.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection approved the project in October and the Army Corps of Engineers also granted the company a permit last week. The company also has all the local permits it needs to start construction and plans to do so in early 2016, Fowler said.
An anti-wind group called Friends of Maine’s Mountains has submitted an appeal of the DEP decision, which is still under review, a DEP spokesman said Monday.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368