Burrillville Power Plant Tax Vote: Deal or No Deal?

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — Is it time to strike a deal with devil? That’s the question opponents of the state’s largest fossil-fuel power plant are debating.

The Town Council intends to vote Oct. 26 whether to accept a long-term property tax agreement with Invenergy Thermal Development LLC, the Chicago-based developer of what would be Rhode Island's largest power plant.

Some opponents say voting on a tax deal, known as a tax treaty, before the state determines the fate of the natural-gas/diesel facility simply signals capitulation by the town, especially after the Town Council voted unanimously Sept. 22 to oppose the project.  

The future of the $700 million project ran into additional uncertainty on Oct. 13 as the state energy board granted a 90-day pause in the application process so that Invenergy can secure a critical element of the project: a water supply large enough to cool the nearly 1,000-megawatt plant.

Kevin Cleary, chair of the town's Conservation Commission, said an approval of the tax deal by the Town Council would show that its vote to reject the project was nothing more than a “smoke show.”

“There is no reason this tax treaty has to be voted on prior to the election, and a vote (Oct. 26) flies in the face of everything we've worked so hard for to this point,” Cleary wrote in an e-mail to the project's opponents.

Jerry Elmer, senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said the Town Council has no legal obligation to hold a vote on a tax deal, much less vote in favor of one.

Invenergy will likely make threats of legal action for not voting on a tax treaty, but, Elmer said, “the most important thing for the town to bear in mind about any tax treaty is this: the town is under zero obligation to enter into a tax treaty. By zero obligation, I mean zero legal obligation, zero ethical obligation, zero political obligation. The town has tax laws on the books, and those existing tax laws will determine Invenergy’s tax obligation if there is no tax treaty.”

Town Council member Donald Fox said it doesn’t matter if the project is postponed or ever approved by the Energy Facilities Siting Board, the Town Council has done its part by vetting the project for more than a year. The town’s governing body is therefore obligated to address all issues relating to the power plant before new members are elected.

“To kick it down the path for another (council) to work on I think is irresponsible,” Fox told ecoRI News.

Fox wouldn't say if he favors a tax deal, just that he wants to act in the best interest of residents and taxpayers. “This community needs some closure on this,” he said.

A vote to approve a tax agreement with Invenergy is not an endorsement of the project, according to Fox.

“It would be irresponsible for the town not to have a treaty in place should an energy facility be sited in our community,” he said.

The Town Council meeting scheduled for Oct. 26 starts at 7 p.m. at Burrillville High School auditorium. A public hearing will be held prior to the vote.