Plea For Transparency On Power Plant Falls Deaf On Some Ears

Jun 9, 2016

Lawmakers in the Rhode Island House of Representatives easily approved legislation related to the state’s Energy Facility Siting Board and to tax treaties with electricity-generating facilities in Burrillville. But some lawmakers in the state Senate were not as receptive to the bill.

Several Burrillville residents testifying before the senate judiciary committee said legislation introduced by State Sen. Paul Fogarty helps ensure the Burrillville Town Council and developer Invenergy make no backroom tax deals.

“The tax treaty legislation that Sen. Fogarty courageously submitted only gives us a voice in what’s going,” said Burrillville resident Kathy Sherman. “I do not have to say to this distinguished committee the problems Rhode Island has faced with backroom, undermined, behind-the-scene deals.”

Sherman told the committee she and other residents have asked the Burrillville Town Council for information about any potential tax agreements, but haven’t gotten answers from them. 

“So if we don’t know anything and we have to be told, ‘You know what? We’re gonna build it and you live with it,’ that’s not really a fair democracy approach,” she said.

"You know, I’m sympathetic to your plight,” said Sen. Donna Nesselbush, who represents Pawtucket and North Providence. “If what you are saying is true, I have to say that your biggest beef has to be with your town council… To me when you bring these problems up here, I am loath to change a statewide approach because one town councilor is not doing his or her job.”

Tuesday night, the Burrillville Town Council said in a press release that it opposes the legislation. It also states that tax negotiations are underway but not finalized, with a treaty guaranteeing between $92 million and $180 million in payments to the town. 

“What we’re asking for is parity with some other states as well,” said Burrillville resident Jason Olkowski, “I think in an era when transparency and accountability is such a hot topic here in our own state, I’m loath to understand why people bristle at the concept of additional transparency and accountability.”

Olkowski pointed out that tax stabilization agreements in Connecticut towns are placed before voters. He said the Connecticut Siting Council and the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board each have nine members. The legislation before the committee would expand the Rhode Island  Energy Facility Siting Board from three members to nine.

“I understand you’re frustrated but when you use words you’re ‘loath to understand’ and ‘the frustrations in transparency’ – I don’t get any of that,” said Sen. Stephen Archambault, who represents Smithfield, North Providence and Johnston. "That all falls on absolutely deaf ears with me, because you have elected officials there – elected officials who are in the first position, through the faith of everybody in the town – to make decisions. And quite frankly, if you’re frustrated, run for office.”

The committee also heard from environmentalists, who strongly oppose the proposed power plant and support of the Keable-Fogarty legislation, and from labor and business groups that maintain their opposition to a bill they consider anti-business. They believe such a legislation would set a bad precedent for infrastructure projects in the state.

The committee has indefinitely postponed the bill, according to the Rhode Island General Assembly’s Bill Tracker.