The bills aimed at giving Burrillville residents a say in a tax treaty between the local town council and Invenergy, the company proposing to build a power plant, died in a senate committee this week.
The Burrillville Town Council played a key role in stopping that legislation.
The Burrillville Town Council took a position against legislation sponsored by State Rep. Cale Keable and State Sen. Paul Fogarty the night the House chamber overwhelmingly approved Keable’s bill. At committee hearings for the senate version of the bill, lawmakers repeatedly told Burrillville residents they couldn't support a bill opposed by their town council.
“The town council good, bad or indifferent in Burrillville chose to entertainment this project,” said State Sen. Frank Lombardi. “It chose to enter into tax treaty discussions. And it chose to communicate to us its inclination to support this for the betterment of their town at least as they depict it.
“And I fear if we were to act contrary to their wishes and allow for referenda to take place on this particular issue, I think we would be flooded with every local issue that is ‘controversial,’” Lombardi continued, “that we would then be asked to legislate it out of the local community and that’s something, unfortunately, I am not willing to do as a lawyer and as a legislator.”
“More importantly, it’s just horrible tax policy and horrible public policy,” added State Sen. William Conley.
Town Manager Michael Wood said the town council’s strong opposition to the bills “doesn’t indicate support or not support for the project. We believe the tax agreement is vital to have in place because we are not in control of the approval of the plant."
Wood said the council hadn’t shared any details on the pending tax treaty until recently because they didn’t want to compromise the negotiation. The tax treaty is close to being finalized and includes an agreement on decommissioning the power plant.
“We don’t want to talk publicly about something that will potentially will have a negative impact on our ability to make the deals that we need to make,” said Wood. “So we haven’t talked about it publicly."
That’s prompted residents to view those tax treaty negotiations as backdoor deals.
Burrillville resident Terri Lacey and several others went to a town council meeting last week looking for answers from their councilors about why they opposed the legislation, but she says they didn’t get any. She said at past town council meeting, councilors denied they had already entered into tax agreements with Invenergy.
“What bothers me so much about this whole thing is that I think there are members of this town council who believe the people of Burrillville are stupid people,” said Lacey, “that we don’t have the common sense to see a good deal when we see one.”
Lacey recognizes some residents in Burrillville who don't want the power plant would vote against any tax deal no matter how good it is, because they have serious concerns over the impact the project would have on public health, the environment and property values. But she said people who live farther away from the site of the proposed power plant want to see a strong tax treaty, especially if the power plant is already a done deal.
“They [the town council] just pulled the rug out from under us,” said Lacey. “Any hope we had of possibly having voice in this, they just took it away from us, without any care about anyone in this town."
Jeannine Fortin echoed Lacey’s sentiments. “If there was a way to pull these people out of office, I wish we could do it,” she said, “because they are not supporting this town. They won’t have a town if they keep this up. They won’t have a town. So what’s the point?"
“Quite frankly, the last-minute opposition of the town council to my bill last week, even as they have refused to take any position on the power plant itself, was the equivalent of getting two torpedoes to the bow," wrote Fogarty in a press release. "And the governor’s recent announcement, after the council’s opposition to my bill, that she would veto any bill that passed finished off any chance the bill had for passage this year."
“I am profoundly disappointed the Senate Judiciary Committee voted down my legislation which would give Burrillville self-determination and the right to vote on a tax treaty for a proposed gas-fracked power plant,” said Keable in a statement. “The Burrillville Town Council and the town manager continue to ignore the will of the people and play games with our town’s future."
The bills dying in committee was a victory for Invenergy, as well as labor and business groups that say the bills were anti-business and could have set dangerous precedents for future infrastructure projects.