Burrillville Council Approves Tax Deal Amid Protest

Burrillville Town Council members were silent before their vote to approve a 20-year tax deal with Invenergy. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Burrillville Town Council members were silent before their vote to approve a 20-year tax deal with Invenergy. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — Amid a heavy police presence and to the displeasure of opponents, the Town Council voted unanimously Nov. 3 to approve a tax agreement with the developer of the proposed fossil-fuel power plant.

The vote confirmed critics' suspicions that the Town Council struck a private deal with Invenergy Thermal Development LLC to allow the natural-gas project to move forward and that the Town Council’s public objection to the project was a charade.

Opponents shouted “rigged” and “shame on you” as the vote was taken. Many preferred that the tax deal happen only after the state Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) approves or denies the natural-gas/diesel facility. Several critics said the Town Council should at least wait until after Election Day, when up to three council seats will have new members, some of whom would likely oppose the tax deal.

The Town Council, however, didn't address those concerns, much less talk at the Nov. 3 special meeting. Town attorney Michael McElroy was the sole town official to address the tax treaty, outlining a dozen reasons why the Town Council should approve the tax treaty for the Clear River Energy Center, which he described as a “polluting monster.”

“I strongly believe that in order to maximize our chances of killing the proposed plant, our focus must be on putting the strongest possible case against the plant at the EFSB hearings,” McElroy said.

If passed, a $2.92 million upfront fee, he said, would commence in January, well before the power plant’s 2019 completion date. The money, he said, could be spent on opposing the energy project and, if necessary, on an appeal at the state Supreme Court. Money, McElroy said, will be needed to oppose Invenergy’s 19 expert witnesses who will testify in favor of the project before the EFSB.

“To kill the plant, we must fight fire with fire,” he said. “Experts and lawyers are expensive.”

The town loses leverage by waiting to approve the tax deal, McElroy said, especially if Invenergy finds a water source or receives its air-pollution permit from the state.

The tax deal brings the town between $4.6 million and $9.1 million per year for 20 years, depending on the number of furnaces the plant builds. By comparison, the natural-gas power plant in Tiverton pays the town $600,000 annually. The natural-gas power plant in Johnston pays $3.6 million a year, and Burrillville's other gas power plant, Ocean State Power, pays $2.8 million per year.

Abutting property owners risked losing a seven-year voluntary opt-out or buyout program that ensures they can sell their homes at a fair price or have Invenergy pay the difference.

“Failure to approve a tax agreement will not, in my opinion, stop the project. Therefore we need to do what we can to protect the town’s interest in the event the EFSB forces the plant on the town,” McElroy said.

Some residents didn’t like the terms in the tax agreement that allow property owners to have Invenergy subsidize the sale of their homes. Cathy Sherman, who lives across the street from the proposed entrance to the new power plant on Wallum Lake Road, said the noise from the nearby pipeline compressor station is already hard to live with.

“If this power plant is built, there’s no reason I can stay there,” Sherman said. “I want out before the shovel hits the ground.”

Despite the relatively small crowd of about 50 attendees in the high-school auditorium, police had a greater presence than at previous meetings and actively prevented the public and media from approaching the Town Council after the vote.

Only after discussions with the council's publicist, Dyana Koelsch, did Town Council president John Pacheco III reluctantly agree to talk with the media.

After the vote, several project opponents vowed to investigate town e-mails that allegedly show the Town Council and town manager Mike Woods negotiated with Invenergy behind closed doors. They vowed to file an open-meeting complaint with the state attorney general if such discussions took place.

Ray Trinque, one of the candidates running for Town Council, said if elected he intends to investigate all of the e-mails and paperwork that led to the tax agreement.

“We need to know how this happened,” he said.

Resident Tracey Keegan said she was the surprised that the Town Council didn't address the recent e-mail controversy at the hearing, as well as news that the Moody’s rating company recently downgraded Invenergy’s credit rating.

The $700 million power plant is currently on hold for 90 days to allow Invenergy to locate a source for cooling water.