PILOTing with our eyes forcibly shut
Imagine there’s some sort of controversial project going on. You know, something like, say, a wind farm.
If it’s not too much of a stretch, imagine that a bunch of people are riled up about it, and that the project requires special governmental approval.
Not too hypothetical for you, is it?
Now ask yourself what would be the single worst thing to do — the absolute best way to make sure already suspicious neighbors get even more riled up?
You got it: Shut the public out of hearings about just how much taxpayers might benefit from the project.
For opponents who live near enough to feel hurt but not near enough to benefit directly, taxpayer relief is the one and only way they can take comfort.
It may not be the solace they seek, but at least it gives them peace of mind knowing that their “sacrifice” will promote public good in ways unlikely to happen unless the project were undertaken.
Shutting people out of opening discussions of how well the company undertaking the project is doing and how much it can afford to pay would be one of the most tone-deaf moves a governmental body could make.
But — surprise, surprise! — that’s exactly what Marion County commissioners did Friday when they decided to throw the public out before getting important information that will provide a starting point for negotiations over how much Expedition Energy will give the county in lieu of taxes during a state-mandated period of tax forgiveness for the company’s now-approved wind farm.
Whether commissioners’ secret session with wind farm developers violated state law is not nearly as important as whether it violated public trust.
Sure, Expedition doesn’t want everyone knowing what its books look like or how much money it’s likely to make off the deal. Nobody trying to do business with the county would. We certainly wouldn’t.
But when there’s a huge body of evidence — including award-winning journalism by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting —suggesting that Kansas counties are being fleeced by wind farm companies, the need for openness and transparency outweighs Expedition’s desire for privacy.
Commissioners, it should be noted, were under absolutely no legal obligation to meet in secret session, even if the company wanted them to. Any commissioner who attended the meeting is under no legal restriction that would prohibit him or her from sharing what was discussed. And it’s not exactly as if letting the public know Expedition’s financial standing would benefit some competitor who could swoop in and undercut Expedition’s bid.
Secrecy surrounding the start of talks on Expedition’s PILOT agreement — the catchy initialism used for payments in lieu of taxes — is a slap in the face of the taxpaying public.
Morally, PILOT agreements aren’t exactly pure. They’re not far removed from legal bribery. State law grants wind farms a 10-year exemption from property taxes, but first they need special permission to violate zoning laws — agreements otherwise known as conditional use permits.
Offering a PILOT agreement as a necessary part of a conditional use permit is somewhat akin to a motorist offering to contribute to the police benevolent fund in exchange for getting a warning instead of a ticket.
Don’t get us wrong. We actually support Expedition’s proposal and renewable energy. We think the wind farm will bring needed financial assistance to landowners and needed business to the community, particularly during construction. And we’re not naïve enough to say we should walk away from getting whatever legal kickback we can for agreeing to allow a wind farm.
But that doesn’t mean we have to like it. What it does mean is the process needs to be done as above-board as possible, with as much public scrutiny as possible.
Take the experience of the already existing Diamond Vista wind farm in the northern part of the county. One of the bugaboos there has been over how extensively developers have maintained roads, even long after they stopped using them.
Lost in an ongoing litany of often petty arguments over road issues is how much money has been diverted — probably out of money that could have provided taxpayer relief — to pay for yet another costly consultant hired by the county to do what the county can’t or won’t in inspecting the roads.
It might take Sherlock Holmes to figure out exactly how much money we’re talking about, but it could be as high as the equivalent of 10 mills on the property tax levy.
A lot of that money seems, according to those most closely involved, to have been wasted lining the pockets of outside consultants instead of going as intended into county coffers.
Will the same mistake by made with Expedition? Who knows — especially when the starting point for negotiations is determined behind closed doors?
It’s not as if the county has a great track record of employing consultants.
Just last week we learned that its new zoning consultants think its old zoning consultants screwed up and included contradictory language in regulations the county paid dearly to have made bulletproof.
The language in question may not actually be contradictory, but if it is, where’s the refund from the original consultant who screwed up?
We suspect it’s the same place as the refund from engineers who screwed up demolition specifications a few months back, forcing a project rebid, or the refund from consultants who multiple times misestimated the cost of our new Taj Mahal trash transfer station. Or maybe it’s with the money we should have wanted back from a costly study, almost immediately labeled as unrealistic, of county workers’ wages.
If one word of discussion Friday dealt with such topics as whether Expedition would or would not want independent road inspection, last Friday’s meeting was patently illegal.
Unfortunately, Kansas law hasn’t kept up with other states’ anti-secrecy laws to require that all executive sessions be recorded, so a judge can verify that nothing other than legally allowed topics was discussed.
We’d be willing to bet that Friday’s session wasn’t just about Expedition’s confidential financial data. However, absent a recording — which the county could have created on its own, without having to be required to do so — there’s no way to appeal to a judge and know for sure.
Wind farms aren’t evil. They aren’t even ugly. A National Geographic channel program this weekend went out of its way to tout the beauty of a wind farm in a lovely valley depicted in aerial photography.
What isn’t pretty is secrecy — especially not in a democracy. If corporations and elected officials cannot trust taxpayers to know the facts, how can taxpayers, as voters, trust them to do what’s in their best interest?
— ERIC MEYER
Last modified Oct. 31, 2019