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National Grid

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School board president Kathleen Brennan. File photo

For the immediate future, the Port Jefferson school district is in a stable financial position as they plan for the 2017-18 school year, though a February petition filed by National Grid could impact the district’s outlook sooner rather than later.

The district’s assistant superintendent for business Sean Leister presented a second draft of the budget for next school year. Currently the plan includes a rollover of all curriculum in the current year’s budget, including some recommended enhancements, and also adds funding for four new staff members district-wide, two of whom will be full-time employees in the special education department. After accounting for contractual increases in staff member salaries and benefits, as well as several infrastructure-related capital improvement projects, the result is a $43,293,012 budget, which is about $1.9 million more than the 2016-17 version. The district will see savings due to a reduction in New York State pension system rates, which Leister’s presentation indicated as a contributing factor in maintaining academic programs despite a slight increase in expenses.

Leister summed up the district’s current financial situation during the presentation.

“We’ve reduced borrowing fees on our money through prudent cash management, we’ve entered into an energy performance contract to save money on lighting and heating efficiency, we continue to review the allocation of staffing, greater stability in administration has led to a reduction in mentoring costs and a high school electrical upgrade will give us different solutions enabling us to operate more efficiently,”
he said.

The budget includes a 2.35 percent tax levy increase, which after exemptions will allow the district to collect the maximum allowable revenue from property taxes while remaining below the state-mandated 2.0 percent cap.

About $35.6 million of the district’s revenue comes from taxpayers, though that number could be slashed drastically in the coming years, pending a lawsuit filed by the district in conjunction with other local municipalities to prevent LIPA proposals to reduce its tax burden. Almost half of the district’s property tax revenue comes from the Port Jefferson Power Center.

Recently National Grid, which provides energy to Long Island in partnership with LIPA, filed a petition with the New York State Public Service Commission in an effort to lift maximum restrictions on peaker units, which are additional power generators designed to be used during times of peak power consumption. Village residents said during a public hearing on the matter March 22 the petition is the first step in an impending fight over the repowering of the now-closed baseload plant, a solution the district and Port Jefferson Village have pushed as a compromise to LIPA’s proposals, though the power authority has deemed the plant “obsolete.”

At the March 21 board of education meeting, district superintendent Paul Casciano called the petition a “piece of the larger puzzle” in the dispute, which could significantly impact future revenue. Nothing imminent is expected relating to the district’s revenue from the plant.

Some of the infrastructure-related capital improvement projects include replacing the roof and electrical improvements at the high school, façade repairs and resurfacing of the high school track. Replacing the high school roof will require a second referendum to be voted on by the public because it would require the release of about $400,000 from the district’s capital reserves. Leister addressed the need for some of the various projects during
his presentation.

“We have some loose bricks that we need to tighten up for health and safety reasons,” Leister said of the façade repairs, which are slated for the high school and middle school. He also justified the need to replace the track. “The track has reached its useful life and if we don’t resurface it now for $360,000, we could be facing a million-dollar, full replacement.”

Leister added during the village board meeting the district has about $1.7 million in unused fund balance, which the district is allowed to keep as a “rainy day” fund as long as it is less than four percent of the total budget.

“You can see here we have a very healthy district and healthy reserves currently on our books,” he said.

The budget vote will take place May 16.

Port Jefferson is fighting to keep property tax revenue flowing from the power plant and to prevent restrictions from being lifted on peaker unit output. File photo by Lee Lutz

By Alex Petroski

Port Jefferson Village officials and residents, as well as Brookhaven Town officials and Suffolk County legislators, flocked to Port Jefferson Village Hall for two public hearings March 22 to voice opposition of a National Grid petition seeking elimination of restrictions on output of small peaker units located at the Port Jefferson Power Station. Peaker units are additional power generators generally used only when there is high demand for power.

National Grid issued the petition Feb. 28 to the New York State Public Service Commission. The hearing was hosted by the commission and overseen by Administrative Law Judge David Van Ort.

Trustee Bruce Miller speaks at the hearing. Photo by Alex Petroski

Both Village Mayor Margot Garant and Port Jefferson School District Superintendent Paul Casciano at respective board meetings this week called the petition and subsequent hearings “pieces of a larger puzzle” in relation to the eventual fight between the village, the district and the Long Island Power Authority, who is a partner with National Grid in supplying power to the area. The village and district are both part of a pending lawsuit filed in 2015 about LIPA’s assertion they pay too much in property taxes. The power authority reiterated that claim in a Feb. 14 annual report on property tax reduction. Both the village and district receive substantial amounts of revenue from the power authority in the form of ratepayer tax dollars.

National Grid is seeking to eliminate the 79.9-megawatt cap on output on the peaker units and allow for maximum output. According to Van Ort, the company has cited greater efficiency as the reason behind their desire to lift restrictions on output, which were established in 2001.

“We, the people of Port Jefferson, believe that this hearing is a thinly veiled attempt to add extra capacity to the grid,” Village Trustee Bruce Miller said during the hearing. “Peakers are dirty. This expansion plan forecloses the clean air, cost-effective alternative that Port Jefferson offers for Long Island with the repowering of our baseload plants.”

In a letter submitted to the commission by Garant, she stated the village has been pursuing the repowering of existing older steam units in the village for more than 10 years. A spokesperson for National Grid did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and representatives from the company in attendance at the meeting declined to speak on behalf of National Grid.

“We need cleaner, cheaper energy on Long Island now,” Miller said. “We need to take dirty peakers off line and replace them with a modest plant with modern technology.”

Village resident Kathleen Riley also voiced opposition to the proposal.

Residents pack Village Hall for the hearing. Photo by Alex Petroski

“Please be finally advised of our deep concern regarding this entire situation, ultimately and especially because Port Jefferson Village depends upon the revenues of the power plant,” Riley said. “The village’s financial viability relies on this power center.”

Riley also expressed concerns about the environmental impact of increased output from the peaker units.

“[LIPA] makes the argument in part that the Port Jefferson Power Plant is functionally obsolete and should be closed,” Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said during the hearing. Romaine went on to argue considering the power plant functionally obsolete while simultaneously filing a petition to lift restrictions on peaker units are “contradictory assertions.”

Deputy Mayor and Trustee Larry LaPointe also provided testimony during the hearing.

“They’re increasing their ability to shut down the main plants in Port Jefferson forever, throwing this village under the bus, throwing our schoolchildren under the bus, throwing this community under the bus, throwing our senior citizens under the bus,” LaPointe said. “But of course that doesn’t seem to matter.”

Peaker plants are generally run using natural gas and are less efficient and more expensive to operate than baseload plants, like the Port Jefferson Power Station, which used steam.

Garant was expected to speak at a second hearing March 22 which occurred after the time of print. The commission will continue to take comments from the public until March 28 by email, on the department website or by phone.

A solar farm is still being proposed near the Shoreham nuclear power plant. Currently, there are plans near the Pine Barrens in Mastic for a solar installation. Photo by Kevin Redding

In response to a proposed solar farm in Shoreham, members of the Brookhaven Town Board urge state legislators to not only stand with them in opposition, but grant them “a seat at the table” to have their voices heard and taken seriously.

Since it was first submitted last June, National Grid and NextEra Energy Resources’ proposal to build a large-scale solar energy facility on the wooded property that surrounds the abandoned Shoreham nuclear power plant, and clear 350 acres of the 800-acre land made up of cliffs, rolling hills and a variety of wildlife species, has sparked an outpouring of local opposition, from elected officials to environmentalists, civic associations, teachers and parents in the community.

The proposed solar farm in Shoreham could look like the one seen here at Brookhaven National Lab. File photo

Those against it share the belief that “renewable energy is important but not at the expense of another section of the environment.” As recently as Feb. 27, the Shoreham-Wading River school board voted unanimously against endorsing the project, despite a considerable financial offer from National Grid, which owns the Shoreham site, and NextEra.

According to the companies, the proposal, developed in response to a PSEG Long Island request to help New York meet Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) renewable energy goals, would generate upwards of 72 megawatts of solar energy, provide power for more than 13,000 homes, and create between 125 and 175 construction jobs and millions of dollars in tax benefits.

It’s currently being considered by LIPA, which would purchase the electricity generated by the joint companies for a period of 20 years under the contract, and New York State.

Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), a leader in the charge against the solar farm, said he thinks the companies involved are making a mistake, and wants it to be known that Brookhaven is going to do everything it can to prevent it from happening and protect the environment.

In addition to the proposed site falling within Shoreham’s A-10 residential zoning code — the most restrictive in Brookhaven — which was put in place more than 25 years ago to specifically protect the “coastal forest preserve,” he said, the proposal directly violates Brookhaven’s solar code adopted last year that opposes cutting down trees or removing native forests to build solar farms or facilities.

“You can build [solar arrays] on clear land, on rooftops, and in parking lots, but you’re not cutting down trees,” Romaine said. “Brookhaven needs to stay green and we do not need to deforest the few uncut forests we have in this town.”

The proposal by National Grid could clear 350 acres along the Long Island Sound. Photo by Kevin Redding

When Romaine and the rest of the town board first heard rumors of the solar farm plan more than a year ago, they dismissed it, confident local opposition and town zoning would be enough to prevent it from going anywhere.

However, the supervisor got word that National Grid and NextEra could get around the zoning restrictions and potentially strip away any of Brookhaven’s say in the matter under Article X of the Public Service Law — a provision allowing “an applicant seeking approval to site a major electric generating facility to obtain a final decision from the New York State Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment, waiving all local zoning requirements, if the Siting Board finds them to be burdensome in terms of technology and costs.”

The Siting Board is composed of five members appointed by the governor.

The town board sprang into action, writing and submitting a letter to nine state senators and assemblymen requesting that the law be amended to allow local municipalities to serve as mandatory parties to the proposed facility “application proceeding.”

“To allow the overriding of local zoning without allowing the local community a significant voice in these proceedings is wrong,” reads the end of the letter, which was signed by Romaine, Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station), Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden), Councilman Michael Loguercio (R-Ridge), Councilman Neil Foley (R-Blue Point) and Councilman Daniel Panico (R-Center Moriches).

“We understand there’s a need for Article X and we’re not saying you can’t decide against us, but we just feel the locality should have a seat at the table, which would give us a voice,” Romaine said, admitting he decided to write to the legislature to be on the safe side, not knowing if the proposal will get that far. “Right now, we have no voice.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine, has previously spoken out against a solar farm in Shoreham. File photo

According to a fact sheet provided by National Grid and NextEra, a poll to determine the attitudes of the residents of the Town of Brookhaven was commissioned, asking what they would like to see developed on the Shoreham property — “they chose ‘solar energy project’ above any other use,” it said. When residents were given information about the solar farm project, the sheet stated “level of support grew to 75 percent.”

Conversely, the proposal is an environmental nightmare as far as Sid Bail, president of the Wading River Civic Association, is concerned.

“This is just a horrible use of the land,” he said. “It’s not just cutting the trees with the thought that ‘They’ll grow back in 50 years,’ it’s the hills, the gullies, the wildlife, the plants and the fauna that would have to be destroyed. I can see why the owners of the property, National Grid, would like to do this, they can make a bundle of money from it … however the idea of deforesting several hundred acres of very special forest land in order to achieve a worthwhile goal isn’t a good trade-off.”

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), chairman of the Committee on Environmental Conservation, deemed the proposal a bad idea, stating the Shoreham site is worthy of being preserved as part of our natural history.

“This is a native forest in essentially pristine condition … it’s a museum piece of natural land,” Englebright said. “I am the original New York State legislator who sponsored what are now the laws that enabled solar energy to begin to take off. I’m a pro-solar, pro-renewable energy person … [but] it was never my intent to see environmental atrocities committed in the name of renewable energy. I’m offended, as the father of solar energy in this state, that they are attempting to so thoroughly abuse the premise of what solar is meant to be.”

Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine and Councilwoman Jane Bonner. File photo

Long Island residents who go to National Grid for their gas may be paying more come January 2017, but not if the Town of Brookhaven has anything to say about it.

The Brookhaven town board passed a resolution, with a unanimous vote June 30, opposing the company’s proposed rate increase that was announced in January. Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) sponsored the resolution, though all six board members asked to be added as co-sponsors prior to voting.

“This is an outrageous rate hike — it will impose a burden,” Romaine said in a phone interview last week. “We think it’s far too great.”

The increase would cost National Grid’s approximately 570,000 Long Island customers about $160 annually on top of what they already pay, according to a statement from the company in January. The increase would be about 12 percent.

Wendy Ladd, a spokeswoman for the company, responded to the resolution in an email Tuesday.

“We feel our proposals and the costs associated with them are essential to provide customers with safe and reliable gas service, enhance storm resiliency, expand the availability of gas service, help reduce methane, support our neediest customers, and to make the investments required to upgrade and modernize aging infrastructure and grow the system to meet the needs of a 21st century clean energy economy for years to come,” Ladd said.

Romaine said there is a precedent for the town intervening in battles over costs with utility companies. Last year, Brookhaven took on Long Island Power Authority in a similar case.

“LIPA now knows that we, if nothing else, will be watchdogs for the citizens of Brookhaven,” Romaine said.

National Grid New York’s President Ken Daly commented on the matter in January.

“National Grid has invested more than $4.5 billion over the past decade to modernize and build a safer and more reliable natural gas system for our customers. During this period of time, we have also maintained stable delivery rates for our customers,” he said in a statement. “Now, as we respond to the need to invest even more into our aging gas networks and prepare for the future needs of our customers, the investments required to provide this service have increased. The proposals will allow us to accelerate our gas main replacement program, improve critical customer service, and ensure that we have a modernized and technologically advanced natural gas system for our customers and the communities we serve, now and in the future.”

The Brookhaven town board is not against a rate hike altogether, though members said they would like to see it greatly reduced.

The resolution read in part: “the cost of living on Long Island is already astronomical partly due to high utility costs, placing a heavy burden on the residents of Long Island … residents are leaving Long Island in search of better opportunity and a lower cost of living.”

The resolution concluded with the board’s intention to “send a letter in opposition to the proposed rate hikes by National Grid and the Department of Public Service.”

National Grid’s January statement said the rate increases would allow them to significantly increase the gas main replacement program and improve technology in flood-prone areas, among other benefits.

The proposal will be reviewed by the New York State Department of Public Service before it is approved.

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Extreme low temperatures caused enough demand to require use of the Port Jefferson Power Station. File photo by Erika Karp

Port Jefferson Village moved another chess piece in its match against the Long Island Power Authority last week, filing a lawsuit to dispute the utility’s property tax challenges from the last few years, which are still pending in court.

Village Attorney Brian Egan said at the board of trustees meeting Tuesday night that the village filed the lawsuit last Friday contending LIPA had promised not to challenge its property tax assessment at the Port Jefferson power plant unless the assessment was disproportionately increased.

That perceived promise links back to a 1997 letter from former LIPA chairman Richard Kessel, upon inking a power supply agreement between LIPA and the Long Island Lighting Company, as the former was taking over for the latter. That agreement covered power plants now owned and operated by energy company National Grid, which includes those in Port Jefferson and Northport.

Back then LIPA and local municipalities were embroiled in other tax assessment challenges. Kessel’s letter said the utility would drop those challenges and would not “initiate any further tax certiorari cases on any of their respective properties at any time in the future unless a municipality abusively increases its assessment rate.”

Port Jefferson has actually gone in the opposite direction on the neighborhood power plant’s assessment, officials confirmed Tuesday — LIPA’s assessment was only proportionately increased over time, and since it began challenging its assessment in 2010, it has in fact seen a decrease. Officials called that 10 percent decrease an act of good faith as they negotiated with the utility on the matter.

At the heart of the issue is a disagreement over the worth of the local power plant: LIPA contends it is grossly overassessed, forcing the utility to pay more in property taxes than it should.

The power plant is a large source of tax revenue for the area, particularly the Port Jefferson school district and the village. Smaller stakeholders include the Port Jefferson fire and library districts and the Town of Brookhaven.

As LIPA’s property tax challenges trickle through the court system, Port Jefferson’s latest lawsuit piggybacks on an idea from out west — Huntington Town and the Northport-East Northport school district filed a similar suit a couple of years ago in their battle on the Northport power plant, which mirrors the situation in Port Jefferson. That inceptive lawsuit, challenging LIPA’s ability to challenge its property tax assessment, faced a motion to dismiss that New York State’s highest court recently denied — allowing the case to play out. Seeing the ruling in favor of Huntington and Northport, Port Jefferson followed suit.

“I feel very strong,” Egan said about the case.

According to the village attorney, he will ask that court action on LIPA’s tax challenges be delayed until the new lawsuit is resolved.

The Port Jefferson and Huntington area lawsuits may also be joined, and it is possible more plaintiffs, such as Brookhaven Town and the Port Jefferson school district, could jump in.

At the time the courts denied LIPA’s motion to dismiss Huntington Town and the Northport school district’s lawsuit, a LIPA spokesperson said the utility does not comment on ongoing litigation.

If the municipalities win their lawsuits regarding LIPA’s right to challenge its property tax assessments, those pending challenges would be thrown out.

Suffolk County Police Marine Bureau officers freed a trapped bird in Northport. Photo from SCPD

A bird has got new wind beneath its wings, thanks to rescue efforts by the Suffolk County Police Department’s Marine Bureau, whose officers freed the creature on Sunday after it became entangled on an offshore fuel platform in Northport.

Officers Charles Marchiselli and Michael O’Leary were aboard Marine Bravo when they observed the bird tangled in string along the railing of the platform, about two miles north of National Grid’s Northport power plant, at approximately 11:15 a.m. O’Leary distracted the bird with a wildlife pole while Marchiselli covered it with a blanket and cut the entangling lines.

The bird appeared uninjured and swam away after being freed, police said.

The officers saw the bird while they were conducting a homeland security check of the platform, which is used to offload fuel for the power plant.

National Grid owns and operates the plant, and sells its produced energy to utility PSEG Long Island, which distributes the power to Long Island residents.