County ponders opting out of renewable energy law

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Cortland County legislators voted on Tuesday to recommend opting out of a state law that provides tax breaks for solar energy projects. 

This state statute pushes local governments to negotiate Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreements with solar developers to stand in place of tax revenue.

The motion was brought on by Legislative Majority Leader George Wagner (R-LD-15) at Tuesday’s Finance and Administration Committee meeting. 

It is on the recommendation of consulting attorneys from Buffalo-based Hodgson Russ LLP. Ideas on how to best deal with solar PILOT agreements that had been discussed by the legislature and members of the public at several meetings in the last year.

Opting out of the state law exemption would mean solar developers would have to be responsible for taxes on their projects. 

Legislature Chair Kevin Fitch (R-LD-8) said that the exemption doesn’t preclude companies from negotiating PILOTs with the Cortland County Industrial Development Agency (IDA).

“This deals with taxes. This is revenue. That is what this is for. The opting out, we already know, puts the direction to the IDA,” Fitch said. “There's nothing here that is going to direct us from ever getting rid of renewable energy.”

Legislative Minority Leader Beau Harbin (D-LD-2) said the motion was not following proper process. He argued it did not go through the Agriculture, Planning, and Environmental Committee for discussion.

“Frankly at this point, the committee has been shut out of the consideration process,” he said. “It has been taken out of our hands and was brought forward by Finance and Administration and no further consideration was given to the committee.”

Harbin also argued outside counsel had not provided legislators with reports on the pros and cons of opting out of the state statute, as well as other models around the state that the legislature could use as a reference.

Hodgson Russ was paid an amount not to exceed $10,000 for consulting on the matter of solar development and property taxes, Harbin said. He noted he was only aware of one meeting between legislators and attorneys. 

Fitch eventually directed County Attorney Victoria Monty to request a report on the pros and cons of opting out of the exemption from Hodson Russ.

Legislators will hold a public hearing on this discussion at its monthly meeting on June 22. The measure will go up for a vote in August.