This will be a little long, but sometimes clarifying a point takes longer than making it in the first place. So please bear with me.
At the beginning of an editorial some months ago, Mineral Daily News-Tribune (Keyser, WV) writer Richard Kerns noted, “Two semesters in Maryland’s journalism grad school that I spent 10 years paying for, taught me that, as a human, which most reporters are, one cannot truly be free of bias. The trick is to keep it out of your reporting, as opposed to column-izing.” In an article dated October 11, 2009 titled “Wind funds eyed for judicial annex” Mr. Kerns begins with this paragraph, “Although they have never endorsed the proposed Pinnacle Wind Farm, the Mineral County Commissioners welcome the tax revenue the project would generate, saying they would dedicate the estimated $125,000 a year to a desperately needed judicial annex.”
It seems to this reader, having read some of Mr. Kerns previous work, he might be, perhaps unintentionally, planting a little seed in the opening of the article that could lead the reader to believe that the Mineral County Commissioners are a little hypocritical for being skeptical of the need, performance and financial viability of the proposed Pinnacle Wind Farm, while, at the same time, discussing how, should the project move forward, the revenue generated from the installation might be used for the benefit of Mineral County.
Beginning his article with “Although they have never endorsed the proposed Pinnacle Wind Farm … they welcome…” Mr. Kerns simply sets the stage for readers to perhaps see their Commissioners as weak and indecisive on the issue, while drooling over the potential for money to spend. This serves no purpose but to cloud the factual content of the story, which I take as the Commissioners doing their job by challenging all aspects of what will be a significant, life altering addition to our community; while discussing options for the new tax revenue and working toward a commitment from US WindForce. I’m frankly confused by Mr. Kerns’ intent. Project approval, as far as I know, is pretty much outside of the Commissioners’ control.
Mr. Kerns notes in the next line that “The commissioners are also working with the Pinnacle developer, US WindForce, to develop a mutually agreed upon “floor” for taxes from the project, in the event that revenue falls below current projections as a result of future tax-rate reductions adopted at either the county or state level.” That would seem a reasonable action in advance of an installation they can do little to prevent. To construct a measure to require US WindForce to live to it’s promises seems reasonable.
Following this, Mr. Kerns states “Commissioner Wayne Spiggle, who acknowledges his “skepticism” about both the 23-turbine Pinnacle project and the wind industry in general, nevertheless said any public official would recognize the importance of a revenue source that promises to pump $11 million in taxes into the Mineral County over the next 25 years. County schools are slated to receive about $308,000 a year from the project, for a total average tax windfall of $433,000 annually.” I’m not sure if Mr. Kerns learned in writing school to put quotes around “skepticism” whenever it pops up in a sentence, or if Mr. Kerns simply wants to emphasize his “amazement” that Commissioner Spiggle might hold a position counter to his own. Mr. Kerns, if one hasn’t noticed, sees the Pinnacle project as a noble step toward the future. For me, if Commissioner Spiggle did acknowledge his skepticism, the quotation marks serve no purpose. But maybe I’m just picky.
By the way … hang onto that “promises to pump $11 million in taxes into the Mineral County” thought for a little while.
Mr. Kerns did offer this quote from Commissioner Spiggle, “There’s no question that for any county commissioner it would be fiscally irresponsible not to favor initiatives that increase tax revenue.” Of course, we residents also expect our Commissioners to evaluate the source of such revenue. One would hope that the source of any tax revenue would be generated from a profitable industry able to compete in the energy market by improvements in efficiency and reduced costs and not simply from tax subsidies provided by other government agencies and increased utility rates paid for by the citizens. One would hope that our Commissioners are forever skeptical of the offerings of businesses that have a poor track record of performance on which planned revenues are based. We expect our Commissioners to wade through the hype of the sales pitch and secure a commitment. It shouldn’t be a stretch for WindForce to confirm their commitment since, according to Mr. Kerns, Scott Burgess, assistant director of property taxes for the state of West Virginia, confirmed that the estimates developed by WindForce were “very solid numbers.”
Interesting term “very solid numbers.” Efficiencies for wind power are all over the map and even the Secretary of Energy Chu acknowledges wind energy’s unreliablity, noting that Bonneville Power in the Northwest “gets about one-fifth of its power from wind energy when the wind is blowing.” “But when it stops blowing, that share drops to zero.” (The Wind Energy cart. Will the horse ever catch up?)” Even the Department of Energy’s “West Virginia Wind Resource Map” carries this disclaimer, “Note: Wind resource at a micro level can vary significantly; therefore, you should get a professional evaluation of your specific area of interest.”
Similarly, Ofgem, Britain’s Office of the Gas and Electricity Markets, highlighted the “variability” of wind as a source of energy supply, and stated that the wind is “so variable in fact that the energy regulator is currently assuming that, in the future, windfarms are available for just 15pc of the time.”
Perhaps the independent professional evaluation recommended by the Department of Energy has, in fact, been done for the Pinnacle project and shared with the Commissioners, or better yet, the Citizens via the News Tribune. Maybe I missed the publication. But then, US WindForce must have some means of generating the “very solid numbers” on which they base their contribution. Perhaps, Mr. Kerns can assist.
But back to Mr. Kerns article. He notes that “Pinnacle opponents, pointing to other West Virginia counties that did not reap the promised tax benefits of wind farms, had challenged the WindForce numbers, saying they were inflated to make the project more appealing.” To clarify, Mr. Kerns also noted that “Burgess, though, said the project most often mentioned in that regard, in Tucker County, predated a 2007 state law that firmly establishes how wind farms are to be taxed.”
So, why all the questions, Commissioners? As Mr. Kerns notes, “With that tax policy pegged to the overall project cost, the $131 million Pinncale wind farm, to be located on Green Mountain just west of Keyser, would provide a major infusion for perpetually stretched county finances.” Commissioner Spiggle commented that, “The presentation (WindForce’s Community Advisory Panel meeting this week in Elk Garden) confirmed that the publicized figures are correct.”
Hey, Put me in Coach! I’m ready to play, today!
But wait! Way down in the article where my ADD normally won’t let me go, after all the critical projects to benefit from this “total average tax windfall” are listed, I see this little gem, “One question mark that hovers over the equation, however…” Well, that sure blew a fuse on my little “skeptical” meter! Seems we have “two special tax levies that together form a substantial part of Mineral County’s 2.58 percent tax rate and, ominously, must be approved by county voters every five years. The fear is that voters, who have consistently rejected an additional levy for school projects, might view the Pinnacle revenue as extra funding that negates the need for the special levies, and vote against one or both assessments. If that happens, Pinnacle would also pay a reduced tax rate, and the $433,000 annual payment could be significantly cut.”
And there’s more. “Spiggle also noted that Burgess, speaking at the Elk Garden meeting, referred to an active “wind lobby” in Charleston. It is possible, the commissioner said, that the wind industry might eventually prevail upon the Legislature to reduce the tax on wind turbines, which would also undermine local tax revenue.” Hmmm! So what are you gonna do about that?
“To address such concerns, the county is currently negotiating with WindForce to establish a minimum tax in the event that revenue from the project declines significantly, for any reason. A similar agreement was put in place for a wind farm in Greenrier County.” Commissioner Janice LaRue confirmed “US WindForce is currently working on that.” Sounds good!
The article confirms that “David Friend, vice president of sales and marketing for WindForce, said a draft agreement has been prepared for the commissioners, establishing $250,000 as a minimum annual tax contribution. Friend said the proposed minimum is “significantly higher” than the Greenbrier County figure,” adding, “We have heard what the commissioners have said about their concerns, and told them we would be happy to look at a ‘floor’ agreement.” The article says “Friend noted that such an agreement would go “above and beyond” any state requirements. “We’re trying to show the commissioners and the public that we’re trying to be good neighbors,” he said.”
OK! Are we done? Of course not! Here comes Commissioner Skeptical again. Seems “Spiggle appears to be taking a harder line on those negotiations than his two fellow commissioners. He wants WindForce to agree to provide annual tax payments based on current projections for the life of the project, regardless of tax rates.”
Commissioner Spiggle said, “I know all three of us think the county should have a contract to provide what Commissioner LaRue calls a ‘floor’…,” and “If those numbers are correct, let that be the floor. If you make a promise, why be afraid to sign a contract to keep that promise?” Hey, sorta like the one I told you to hold on to before … “promises to pump $11 million in taxes into the Mineral County.” Perhaps Mr. Kerns can help us get to the mechanics of the calculation.
But, finally, that promise thing sounds pretty good to me, Commissioner! Asking someone to live to their word? What a novel concept! Thanks for being so “skeptical.” Thanks to the Commissioners for doing their job.
The full News Tribune article is here, for your convenience.