The House Environment and Natural Resources committee heard hours of testimony last night for a bill related to a proposed power plant in Burrillville. Opponents of the bill say it would set a bad precedent for other infrastructure project proposals in the state.
But State Rep. Cale Keable, the lead sponsor, said the bill aims to increase public input into the project’s approval process.
At the hearing Thursday night, Keable said tax agreements between municipalities and electricity generators are subject to voter approval under existing state laws, except in Burrillville.
He said that right was stripped away in the late 1980s to allow the town’s tax deal with Ocean State Power, a power plant that has been operating in Burrillville since 1990.
Keable said his bill attempts to restore that right by amending an existing statute on that matter.
“So it does not change anything about the town council,” said Keable. “It can still negotiate whatever tax stabilization agreement it wants, under the same terms as it always could. There’s nothing different about that, except that that final product would have to be presented to the people.”
That would force the town council to work hard on behalf of its residents, said Burrillville resident Jeremy Bailey, one of many who spoke in favor of the bill.
“So when they bring it [tax deal] to us, we will have a better chance of looking at this and saying, ‘Yes, we like what you’ve done,’ or ‘No, we think you need to go back to the table,’” Bailey said.
Environmental groups also threw their support for the bill. Jerry Elmer, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, said the tax issue on the bill is the most important provision of the bill.
During his testimony, Rep. Michael Marcello asked Elmer for clarification. “If it [tax deal] goes to referendum – and let’s just assume the voters turn it down – it doesn’t mean that the project is dead; it just means they don’t have a tax treaty. They would be taxed at the 97 percent of the assessed value or whatever it is, right?”
“That is emphatically correct,” said Elmer.
“No power plant for $750 million is going to get constructed anywhere in this country and pay the assessed tax rate – not gonna happen,” said Richard Sinapi, who represented the New England Mechanical Contractors Association. “That kind of construction skews the entire tax rate and that project ends up paying, at regular rates, the bulk of the municipality or locality’s taxes. It doesn’t work.”
“Make no mistake about this, this [bill] has nothing to do with policy; it has nothing to do with the legality,” added Michael Sabatoni, president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council. “This has everything to do with killing that project in that town.”
Labor and business leaders took issues with other parts of the bill, which includes a provision to expand the Energy Facility Siting Board, the state body tasked with reviewing and permitting the project, from three members to nine.
Two out of the three EFSB members are governor appointees. Keable said has raised questions among his constituents about whether the project proposal will undergo a thorough review process given the governor's endorsement of the project.
The expansion would include seats for the Commerce Department, the League of Cities and Towns, and the Water Resources Board.
“As we’re learning in Burrillville, when you build something like this, the issue of water is paramount,” said Keable, “and we think there should be someone on the board who can weigh in on that important issue.”
“There’s no harm in giving us a voice,” said Burrillville resident Paul LeFebvre. “There’s only positives in that. There’s no harm in making the panel from three members to nine members. Labor has a seat. No harm in that.”
The bill was held for further study.