Tuscola County commissioners are discounting over a year of contentious meetings, legal wrangling, and turnover of two township boards as a matter of personality differences, calling it a situation similar to the “Hatfields and McCoys” that’s hurting the county financially.
The comments came at the Tuscola County Board of Commissioners’ committee of the whole meeting during a presentation by Tuscola County Controller Mike Hoagland, who outlined the need to reduce the county’s dependence on wind turbine tax revenue — especially in light of questions over the future of wind turbine projects in the county.
Hoagland presented financial figures for three scenarios: one with no new wind turbine projects, another with one project (52 wind turbines), and a last with two new projects (104 new wind turbines total).
Board members identified a “greater than 50 percent chance” the scenario with one new project will happen. Workers have spent the last several weeks setting up the staging ground for the project — Consumers Energy’s Cross Winds II — along M-24 in Columbia Township.
The likelihood of a scenario where the county sees two new projects remains unclear, however, especially after Almer Township’s board of trustees denied applicant NextEra Energy Resources L.L.C.’s application for special land use permit last week for a project called Tuscola III Wind Energy Center. The company still can appeal, meaning the $200 million project isn’t completely off the table.
In Hoagland’s scenario with two projects (104 new turbines), the county could realize peak tax revenue for its general fund of about $1.5 million in 2021. By comparison, tax revenue to the general fund would be about $706,000 that year with no new turbines, having peaked in 2015 with about $1.1 million.
Two county commissioners put any potential lost revenue directly on those who have effectively slowed and/or stopped wind turbine projects in Tuscola County.
“I think a lot of these townships’ problem is, people just don’t get along,” said Kim Vaughan, commissioner, Tuscola County. “I got a township…no matter what that township supervisor says, they don’t like it. No matter what. He’d say ‘We aren’t taxing anybody this year,’ and they’d find something wrong with it.” (Story continues below audio clip)
Vaughan represents the county’s district three (Dayton, Fremont, Indianfields, Koylton, and Wells townships). There are no wind turbines in his district. During Monday’s meeting, he likened the sometimes contentious debate over the impact of 500-foot wind turbines on a community to that between the “Hatfields and McCoys.”
Tuscola County Commissioner Craig Kirkpatrick also was quick to pounce on those who have spent more than a year working to ensure future wind projects put what they have consistently identified as health, safety, and welfare above all else.
He questioned why a wind turbine project was accepted so easily in Columbia Township (Cross Winds II) and has faced such challenges in Almer and Ellington townships (Tuscola III).
As The Advertiser reported in September, Tuscola County Register of Deeds records showed that before November, six Columbia Township officials representing the public — three on the township board, three on the planning commission — held wind leases with Consumers.
“It’s unbelievable to me the differences in those townships,” Kirkpatrick said. “Where there’s so much acceptance in one, and apparently it’s the opposite in the other.”
Kirkpatrick represents Tuscola County’s district four that includes the townships of Arbela, Millington, Tuscola, and Watertown in the southwest corner of Tuscola County. Kirkpatrick said he doesn’t live near any wind turbines, “but I spend considerable time around wind turbines.”
“I just haven’t the experiences that I hear so many complaints about,” Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick said he “has sat under wind turbines on a number of occasions, and I suppose if they malfunction they might make some noise, but I don’t hear it… yet we hear how terribly noisy they are.”
“I have a cell tower across from my home, and I didn’t really like it impacting my view, but at the same time I recognize the positive impact it made on the landowner and on the community,” Kirkpatrick said. “Sometimes you have to balance that.”
During Hoagland’s presentation, he said the current 189 wind turbines in Tuscola County meant about $6.3 million in revenue for taxing jurisdictions in the area (townships, schools, libraries, the county, and more).
“Unfortunately, there is significant uncertainty with revenue from wind turbines,” Hoagland wrote in an email to county commissioners that was included in the presentation Monday. “What we do know is the amount of revenue received declines substantially over time. Wind turbine companies are also appealing the amount of taxes paid which could result in substantially less revenue to local governments. It is unknown at this time whether additional turbines will be constructed.”
Hoagland said county dependency on wind turbine revenue is high.
“Unless this dependency can be reduced, problems will occur in the future as the amount of revenue from this source declines,” Hoagland said, adding that ideally wind turbine revenue wouldn’t be used for ongoing operational costs and used for equipment/capital expenditures instead.
“The high level of dependency on this revenue needs to change,” he said.
Hoagland presented several possible ways the problem could be addressed, including new millages for public safety and other special purposes, growing the tax base, and reviewing the potential of housing prisoners for revenue.
However, discussion about wind turbine revenue Monday seemed to continually return to the notion that residents need to realize the importance of the source of income.
Kirkpatrick said at one point he realized “there’s some emotions here that are taking people beyond the rational side of their thinking. So how you address that kind of emotion, I don’t know.”
Tuscola County Board of Commissioners Chairman Thom Bardwell said the action taken by voting residents of those communities shouldn’t be dismissed.
In Almer and Ellington townships, both boards had nearly complete turnover as residents who were concerned that they weren’t being heard on issues such as wind turbines ran for office on the general platform of change.
“You have to think about the residents to understand their concerns and how they see it versus how we see it,” Bardwell said. “We see it financially, they see it through different lenses.”
Gregg Campbell, trustee, Ellington Township, was the lone member of the public at the meeting.
Campbell said he was at the meeting for a completely different reason, and was stunned at the comments regarding wind turbines and citizens’ concerns. He said he “felt less than respect by” the commissioners and that he took offense to some of the remarks.
Campbell said he had one general response to comments that he and others are hurting the county’s bottom line: too bad.
“I also refuse to put the almighty dollar before the residents who have trusted me to look out for their well-being,” Campbell later told The Advertiser. “So that being said, should those projected dollar amounts decrease some because projects get altered, well so be it.
“Money can never replace a person’s health and quality of life,” said Campbell, who did not speak at the meeting and left before it was over.
On Tuesday, Kirkpatrick said he wished Campbell “would have identified himself or engaged us during our board meeting as I would have liked to have met him.”
“I’m not sure why he felt ‘less than respected’ but that certainly was not my intent,” Kirkpatrick said. “I’m not sure how we might have offended him as he didn’t engage in conversation but wind farm development is an extremely emotional topic for his township and I’m sure it causes him a lot of stress.”
Kirkpatrick also pointed out that he voted for a resolution the board of commissioners passed that essentially recognizes “local jurisdictions should determine their own zoning needs and be free to do as their citizens wish through zoning ordinances and public hearings.”
“The health and safety of our citizens is always a high priority and wind farm development and operation has been investigated by health experts,” Kirkpatrick wrote in an email to The Advertiser. “Unfortunately once emotion takes over a discussion it’s difficult for people to except (sic) statistical outcomes or contrary information to their beliefs.”
Kirkpatrick said he sees wind turbine projects as a “blessing” for Tuscola County, pointing out the county’s high unemployment rate in the last seven years, coupled with dramatic reductions in property values.
“Landowners receiving income from leasing property to wind developers are building lots of new structures, their (sic) buying new vehicles and equipment while enjoying the benefits of a little extra income,” Kirkpatrick said. “There is an extensive list of new revenue coming from wind development that is propping up our local economy and creating lots of jobs in all fields.
“Restaurants, gas stations, and motels are full of the workers that are building those wind farms and maintaining them once built. But even more importantly our schools, senior citizens groups, and roads and bridges have received over $3.8M in 2016 tax revenue.
“My job as a commissioner is to help our county,” Kirkpatrick wrote. “As finance co chair the financial benefits of wind are huge and without that revenue we would not be able to fund those programs as effectively, if at all. Unfortunately some folks aren’t as community minded.”
The next regular meeting of the Tuscola County board of commissioners is Thursday (Jan. 26) at 8 a.m. at the county’s Purdy Building, 125 W. Lincoln St., in Caro.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at [email protected]