The Rochester Board of Selectmen is in no hurry to enter into a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement with Clean Energy Collective (CEC), the solar developer of a solar array field at 268 Mattapoisett Road.
On February 4, Principal Assessor Charles Shea told the selectmen about the disparity he sees between the PILOT revenue the Town receives from the solar array field on Snipatuit Road owned by Melink Corporation and what Shea anticipates the Town will receive from Clean Energy Collective.
According to Shea, Melink pays $23,000 annually under its PILOT agreement for the valuation of personal property and $28,000 for the valuation of the real property.
“So there’s about $50,000 coming in from a 1-megawatt system pretty much identical to the solar system [on Mattapoisett Road] and, as an assessor, I’m seeing a disparity.”
Shea said, “I’ve heard $20,000 a year” from CEC’s 5-acre, 1-megawatt solar field. “I just see, as an assessor, a differentiation in outcome and I wondered what I might have done wrong in the first one and how … I’m supposed to approach them in the future.”
“There’s a lot that’s changed since we signed that first one,” said Town Counsel Blair Bailey.
Bailey explained the situation, saying that the two sums from the two solar array fields differ because the Melink PILOT was formed under a previous state program that allowed municipalities to include both the valuation of personal property (the solar array equipment) and the property tax. Now, Bailey said, the law has changed and solar companies have found a loophole in the tax code that Bailey said in a follow-up that CEC wants to take advantage of.
“A recent batch of cases in front of the ATB are about whether they took a provision of the tax code meant for one thing and made it apply to another,” said Bailey, further clarifying, “The tax code says any solar facility that provides power to a taxable facility is not in and of itself taxable.” Bailey said this new law was designed to encourage solar energy development and consumption in the state.
Taking all that into consideration, Bailey told Shea, the average agreement price that he could find in the state right now on a megawatt basis was $10,000 per megawatt on property, while other states average $20,000 a megawatt. The question is then, said Bailey, is a PILOT agreement in the best interest of the Town?
“We can certainly say no, we’re not going to agree to a PILOT,” said Bailey. But, he said, if CEC gets a tax bill from the Town, “The next step is the ATB.”
Shea argued that the Assessors’ Office should take CEC’s revenue into consideration when targeting a sum for a PILOT agreement, but according to Shea, CEC refused to provide it.
“I want to see some data,” said Selectmen Chairman Greenwood “Woody” Hartley. “I want to see some numbers – the difference between the two [solar projects] … so that we establish a standard that we can stand behind.”
Bailey, however, cautioned that this was not the legal way to assess the value of property. When the Town assesses the value of property for any other business in town, he said, it is not based on how much money the business makes.
“There is no other commercial property that you assess on the basis of profit,” Bailey said.
Selectman Brad Morse suggested tabling the discussion until the next meeting in order to gather further information before a vote.
“We really want to see some data,” said Hartley.
During the follow-up with Bailey, he said a PILOT agreement is something that benefits both the solar company and the municipality because both parties can accurately anticipate the sum it pays and the sum it receives, respectively, over the term of the 20-year long agreement.
In other matters, the board is concerned about the rising cost of tuition for Rochester students to attend Bristol County Agricultural High School. The Town anticipates 12 students will attend Bristol Aggie this next fiscal year at a cost of $25,000 per student, the rate the school will charge for out-of-district students.
Bristol County students’ school districts pay just $1,900 tuition.
Hartley said the legislation allows agricultural high schools to “charge us almost whatever they want,” and he wondered if that legislation adopted in the early 1900s was no longer fair to towns like Rochester.
Morse commented that when he was first elected to the board 15 years ago, the tuition was $12,000 per student. Rochester has more students per capita attending Bristol Aggie than other towns, Hartley pointed out, which affects the Town’s budget to the tune of 29% in the Bristol Aggie line item.
“And with Proposition 2 ½, that doesn’t work,” said Town Administrator Suzanne Szyndlar.
But both Morse and Hartley emphasized that Bristol Aggie is a good school and that the board was in no way unsupportive of Rochester students attending the school.
The selectmen also approved two upcoming events that will pass through Rochester: the Tour de Crème on May 19, and the On Your Left Racing Triathlon event on July 27.
The board accepted the resignation of Robert Mogilnicki from the Historical Commission, which leaves one opening on the commission. Anyone interested may submit a letter to the Board of Selectmen.
The next meeting of the Rochester Board of Selectmen is scheduled for Tuesday, February 19 at 6:00 pm at the Rochester Town Hall.
Rochester Board of Selectmen
By Jean Perry