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Northport Power Plant

The Northport power plant. File photo

Huntington’s elected officials are calling for changes to the structure of Long Island Power Authority despite being engaged in mediation with the utility company.

Huntington Town Board unanimously decided to send a message urging New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the state Legislature to enact the Long Island Power Authority Ratepayers Protection Act at its Nov. 8 meeting. The legislation, if passed, would require eight out of the utility company’s nine board members to be elected by public vote, among other changes.

“It is in the best interest of Town of Huntington residents to have a LIPA board that is elected by and answers to the ratepayers.

— Nick Ciappetta

“It is in the best interest of Town of Huntington residents to have a LIPA board that is elected by and answers to the ratepayers,” Town Attorney Nick Ciappetta said.

The bills were first introduced to the state Legislature in February 2017 by Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (D-Sag Harbor), co-sponsored by a coalition including state Assemblyman Andrew Raia (R-East Northport).

“I’ve been calling for the election of LIPA trustees forever, ever since there was a LIPA,” Raia said. “The best way to control our electric rates is to make LIPA trustees elected.”

Currently, LIPA’s nine-member board of trustees consists of five individuals appointed by the governor, two selected by the president or majority leader of the state Senate, and two chosen by the speaker of the Assembly.

The proposed ratepayers protection act calls for the state Legislature to create eight districts roughly equal in population based on the last U.S. Census, by May 1, 2019. A resident of each district would be elected to LIPA’s board to serve a two-year term as trustee, with the first elections to be held in December 2019. Candidates on the ballot would not be chosen by the political parties. Those elected to the board would not be paid, but could be reimbursed from the state for their related expenses, according to the draft of the bill.

In addition, proposed legislation would require LIPA to hold public hearings before making future rate changes, give residents 30 days advance notice of the hearing, and hold the event in the county it affects — Suffolk or Nassau. It would prohibit the utility company from increasing its rates to offset any losses from energy conservation efforts.

“It would make LIPA a whole lot more accountable than they are now,” Raia said. “Without a doubt.”

The best way to control our electric rates is to make LIPA trustees elected.”

— Andrew Raia

The legislation, despite being proposed in 2017, has not made it out of committee to a vote before either the state Assembly or Senate, according to the Legislature’s website.

No action can currently be taken on the legislation, though, as the state Assembly’s 2018 session ended in June. There are no plans to reconvene before year’s end, according to Raia, particularly with midterm elections flipping the state Senate to Democratic control. The bill cannot be enacted by Cuomo without getting the legislative body’s approval. Raia said he suspects Huntington’s elected officials are hoping the governor will consider working it into his 2019 budget, which is currently
being drafted in Albany.

“I’m not the biggest fan of putting policy into the state budget, but many times it’s the only way to get things done,” he said.

Huntington Town officials had no further comment on the timing of the message. Mediation pertaining to the value of the Northport Power Station between the town, Northport-East Northport school district, LIPA and National Grid is ongoing, according to Ciappetta, as he anticipates the next mediation session before the end of November. The tax certiorari lawsuit’s next date in court is Dec. 5.

The Northport power plant. File photo

Long Island Power Authority has won the latest battle against the Town of Huntington in the lengthy legal war over Northport Power Station’s value.

New York State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division has reinstated LIPA’s right to pursue a lawsuit against the Town of Huntington regarding the amount of taxes levied against the Northport power plant, reversing a September 2015 decision made by a lower court. A panel of judges ruled Aug. 8 LIPA does have legal standing to be a plaintiff in the 2010 lawsuit it filed jointly with National Grid.

“We believe the appellate court’s decision is correct.”

— Sid Nathan

“We believe the appellate court’s decision is correct,” LIPA spokesman Sid Nathan said. “We remain committed to reaching a fair settlement for both the local communities and our 1.1 million customers to put an unsustainable tax situation back on a sustainable path.”

In September 2015, state Supreme Court Justice John Bivona issued a decision dismissing LIPA’s standing as an initiating plaintiff in the tax certiorari case, since National Grid — and not LIPA — is the owner of the plant. Bivona had written that while LIPA believed its financial interests are adversely impacted by a wrongly overstated assessment of the power plant, “the result is still remote and consequential and certainly does not constitute a direct loss because the property taxes levied upon the Northport Power Station are actually and directly paid by National Grid Generation LLC.”

LIPA filed an appeal of Bivona’s decision in 2015. The utility has asserted while National Grid does own the power plant, the station is under contract with LIPA. Under the contract, LIPA is required to pay all costs to run the power plant — including the $80 million in annual property taxes to the Town of Huntington — and provide necessary fuel, for which in return it receives all electricity generated for its customers.

The utility company claims that its costs to operate the Northport Power Station including the taxes on it exceed the total revenue, resulting in LIPA referring to it as a “significant burden to LIPA’s customers.”

We’re reviewing the order from the appellate division and we’re considering an appeal.”

— Nicholas Ciappetta

With LIPA’s legal status reinstated as a party of interest on the tax certiorari case, the issue of the property tax-assessed value of the power plant could proceed to trial.

However, Huntington Town Attorney Nicholas Ciappetta has said he plans to carefully review the appellate court’s decision.

“We believe this has been wrongly decisioned,” Ciappetta said in a statement. “We’re reviewing the order from the appellate division and we’re considering an appeal.”

This latest legal decision comes less than a month after Huntington voted July 17 to hire a neutral third-party mediator, Marty Scheinman, in an attempt to reach a resolution with LIPA, National Grid and Northport-East Northport school district. The town agreed to pay Scheinman $1,150 an hour in addition to covering all out-of-pocket expenses, such as transportation and a one-time administrative fee, the total bill will be split among all parties in the mediation. 

Mediation has not yet started, but the first session is slated for Sept. 26, according to Chiappetta.

Update: Additional information was added to further clarify that the town will be splitting the costs of the third-party mediator. 

Northport school district residents read and fill out letters to state and federal elected officials. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Northport-East Northport school officials are asking their residents to call on elected officials for immediate help finding a resolution to their seven-year legal battle against Long Island Power Authority.

Northport school district held a call-to-action forum May 30 in which it asked all residents to reach out to their state and federally elected officials to take action in bringing about a solution to the district’s lawsuit against LIPA and National Grid as a June court date looms.

“Our elected officials really need to hear from us,” Superintendent Robert Banzer said. “The more voluminous, the louder, the more persistent we are the more likely they are to listen.”

The more voluminous, the louder, the more persistent we are the more likely they are to listen.”
– Robert Banzer

Hundreds of copies of a form letter addressed to elected officials including New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), state Sens. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset), and state
Assemblyman Andrew Raia (R-East Northport) were distributed for residents to sign and mail in to lawmakers. These letters call on elected officials to take action to help aid the school district stave off LIPA, which seeks a 90 percent reduction in taxes — a difference of approximately $56 million down to $8 million paid to the district — before the state Legislature’s sessions end June 20.

“LIPA must be stopped before it is too late,” reads a letter pre-addressed to Raia. “We are seeking your assistance in calling upon the governor to provide immediate assistance in Albany. Action by the governor’s office can stop the imminent harm to us as taxpayers, to our schools, our students and the community at large.”

As the June 11 court date rapidly approaches, Banzer and the Northport school district are pushing state officials to approve what they are putting forth as two possible solutions.

First, would be the passage of pending legislation of state Senate Bill No. S08235, sponsored by Flanagan with co-sponsor state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), and its corresponding state Assembly Bill No. A10496, which is co-sponsored by Raia. These bills would lengthen the time frame over which LIPA is seeking to have its taxes gradually reduced from nine years to a proposed 15 years. It would also grant those municipal governments and school districts who lost a tax assessment challenge to LIPA after April 1, 2018, access to the state’s electric generating facility cessation mitigation program, which provides funding to help offset any potential loss of tax revenue. In addition, the town government and schools would be granted the right to create reserve funds specifically for the purpose of reducing the future burden on their taxpayers.

The Northport power plant. File photo

READ MOREHuntington stays on track in LIPA lawsuit despite cries for help 

“It would provide some mitigation of the impact to us,” Banzer said. This would provide a glide path, it would provide a somewhat softer landing should there be a [change in] assessment.”

Northport school officials are also asking residents to directly call on Cuomo and the state Legislature to intervene by directing that LIPA, as a utility company overseen by a state-appointed board, to offer a “reasonable and equitable” settlement offer.

While previous settlements have been declined, Banzer made clear, “we would never say we wouldn’t sit down and have conversation on how to mitigate this.”

On May 9, Northport school district attorney John Gross presented his argument in Suffolk County Supreme Court as to why he believes LIPA should be held to what school officials are calling the “1997 Promise.” Under this promise, school officials allege, LIPA and National Grid agreed not to challenge the annual taxes paid on the Northport Power Station as long as they were not abusively increased over time by Town of Huntington. A decision has not yet been issued by Judge Elizabeth Emerson, despite the June 11 trial date approaching.

We need to continue to put pressure on [Huntington town officials] to speak for us on behalf of the community.”
– Jennifer Thompson

“I think the community needs to communicate with town leadership,” Northport resident Jennifer Thompson said, citing the years Huntington Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) served in the state Assembly. “We need to continue to put pressure on them to speak for us on behalf of the community.”

Councilman Gene Cook (R) said he would call for Huntington Town Board to hold a public hearing regarding using eminent domain to acquire the Northport Power Station.

“LIPA has been lying to us,” Cook said.

The councilman claims that LIPA’s assessed value of $193 million for the Northport power plant focuses only on the electricity produced, but does not account for gas lines, cable transmissions or other public utilities that are received from the power station.

“I’m going to fight this,” he said. “I’m going to fight this to the end and I want you to know that.”

Northport taxpayers who are interested in getting in contact with their elected  officials or reading the form letters provided at the May 30 meeting can find them on the district’ website at northport.k12.ny.us/
district/lipa_update.

The Northport power plant. File photo

Huntington town elected officials refused to entertain a request to hire additional legal help in its lawsuit against Long Island PowerAuthority, despite calls from Northport residents for help.

Huntington Councilman Gene Cook (R) offered a resolution at the June 5 town board meeting to hire Manhattan-based law firm Boies Schiller & Flexner LLP as additional legal counsel in the town’s pending tax certiorari case with LIPA and National Grid over the Northport Power Station as the case heads to trial in July.

“I believe this is a very needed law firm to hire at this point,” Cook said. “For the money that this law firm would [cost], it’s a whole lot less than the hundreds of millions we stand to lose.”

For the money that this law firm would [cost], it’s a whole lot less than the hundreds of millions we stand to lose.”
– Gene Cook

A request to hear and vote on a measure was shot down by a 3-2 vote, by Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R), Councilman Mark Cuthbertson (D) and Councilwoman Joan Cergol (D).

“There are hundreds of thousands — millions of dollars at stake now in this case,” Lupinacci said. “Huntington has been fighting hard on behalf of the taxpayers. We will continue to use all legal options at our [disposal] to make sure LIPA and National Grid honor their contractual promises.”

LIPA filed a tax certiorari lawsuit against the town assessor’s office in 2010 seeking a 90 percent reduction in the tax assessed valuation of its Northport Power Station, and seeking repayment of all taxes it claims to have overpaid since 2010 — currently amounting to more than $550 million and growing.

Cook said the Manhattan-based law firm is one of the top litigation firms in the nation, although admittedly not specialized in cases related to power plants.

“We are losing a huge opportunity and it will hurt everyone out there by not doing this,” he said.

Several prominent Northport residents had pleaded with the town officials to support Cook’s resolution Tuesday afternoon including Northport school board trustee David Stein, who spoke as a private resident in support of the measure.

The army of attorneys, lobbyists and PR titans that we are against now requires an outsized army of our own.”
– David Stein

“LIPA and National Grid have brought in a veritable army of lawyers, lobbyists and [public relations] attack dogs,” Stein said, painting an image of a David-versus-Goliath fight. “The army of attorneys, lobbyists and PR titans that we are against now requires an outsized army of our own. And so, I urge you to engage the services of the biggest, best, brightest and most well-known in all of these areas now.”

Under Cook’s proposed contract, attorneys from Boies Schiller & Flexner would have been paid an hourly rate of not more than $1,650 an hour to assist the town’s current legal representatives from Lewis & Greer P.C. in determining a strategy and arguments for the upcoming trial. These accumulated attorney fees could not be bonded under state law, according to the town supervisor, but would have required dipping into the town’s capital reserves.

“If spending $1,650 were a silver bullet that would achieve something here, I would do it,” Cuthbertson said. “The law firm Cook would like to hire has absolutely no experience in tax certiorari cases that involve power plants.”

Lupinacci said he was willing to consider looking into other prominent litigation law firms which might be able to serve the town at a lower cost.

“Sometimes when [law firms] look at a municipality, they believe they are looking at deep pockets,” the supervisor said. “We have to do some outside the box thinking and leave no stone unturned.”

If spending $1,650 were a silver bullet that would achieve something here, I would do it.”
– Mark Cuthbertson

Northport Village Deputy Mayor Thomas Kehoe and Northport resident Tammy Topel both urged the Huntington town officials to take more aggressive action in light of additional information that has become public — spoken widely about by Cook — calling the Northport Power Station a hub through which natural gas lines and fiber optic networks for internet pass through.

“I believe these are misguided attempts to incorporate other aspects into the valuation process that just aren’t there,” Cuthbertson said. “It’s a red herring and unfair to the public.”

Cook vehemently disagreed with his fellow councilman in open debate.

The town is moving forward by pursuing help from its state elected officials, according to the supervisor, including scheduling a meeting with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to garner his support for a resolution to the case. Lupinacci said the town still remains open to negotiations.

“We are always speaking with the other side to see if there is some kind of resolution, but we are probably not going to achieve a resolution that is going to be beneficial to the taxpayers of Huntington and to our students,” Lupinacci said. “We are prepared to take this case to trial.”

Councilman Eugene Cook calls for residents to launch letter-writing campaign to Huntington Town officials

The Northport power plant. File photo

Town of Huntington officials are moving toward making a power play against Long Island Power Authority and National Grid to take over control of the Northport power plant.

Councilman Gene Cook (R) has called for town residents to participate in a letter-writing campaign asking Huntington’s elected officials to consider utilizing eminent domain to take control of Northport power plant.

His proposal comes days after LIPA allegedly submitted documents to Suffolk County Supreme Court for its pending lawsuit against the town, in which it disputes the tax value of the plant, claiming the structure only has a fair market value of $193 million, according to Cook.

“Their estimate is so far out of wack on it, they are almost like giving us the plant,” the councilman said. “If they want to give it to us, I want to take it.”

Cook said he thinks the Northport facility is one of the biggest power plants in the Northeast, which will become more valuable with future improvements. He estimated the power station could produce $5 billion in revenue per year for the town if it took over operation of the facility. He suggested the name “Huntington Power Service Company.”

“We want to serve our residents, not be an authority over them like LIPA has done,” Cook said. “They have taken LI Power Authority as ‘we have authority over everyone.’” 

Their estimate is so far out of wack on it, they are almost like giving us the plant.”

— Eugene Cook

The councilman drafted a resolution he said he plans to present at the May 17 town board meeting for Huntington to hold a public hearing. If approved, a hearing will be held June 5 at 2 p.m. for residents to voice their thoughts and concerns on the acquisition of the plant from National Grid, which is the owner of the power station.

“The basis of this acquisition will be for the purpose of delivery to the public of electrical power in a safe and cost-efficient manner,” reads the draft resolution.

Under New York State law, the town must publish its findings and determinations on the proposed acquisition from the public hearing within 90 days. The Town of Huntington is due in court to face LIPA less than a week later June 11.

“We are looking at every facet of possibility here when looking at the LIPA situation because it’s a very serious situation,” Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) said. “Any possibility that comes up we will review with our attorney — we will review it with experts to see if it’s feasible.”

Even if the town initiated the process of obtaining the power plan via eminent domain, it would not resolve the town’s lawsuit with LIPA. In addition to seeking a 90 percent reduction of taxes on the power plant, LIPA is asking for the town to reimburse it for alleged overpayment of taxes each year since it filed the claim in 2010 — totaling more than $500 million.

“Let’s save the consulting and legal expenses of evaluating this idea, which would be fiscally disastrous to the town, its taxpayers and wouldn’t resolve the pending tax certiorari litigation,” LIPA spokesman Sid Nathan said in a statement.

Let’s save the consulting and legal expenses of evaluating this idea, which would be fiscally disastrous to the town, its taxpayers and wouldn’t resolve the pending tax certiorari litigation.”

– Sid Nathan

LIPA disputes that the Town of Huntington could turn a profit operating the station, claiming Northport power plant is operated at a loss. The power company said its contract with National Grid requires it to pay all costs to run the plant — including $80 million in annual property taxes leveraged by the Town of Huntington — which exceeds its revenue. LIPA also stressed that if Huntington took control of the plant, all beneficial tax revenue would cease, leaving residents to pay more for their government services.

“We hope the town will join with other local communities on Long Island that are working with LIPA to reach a fair settlement offer that puts an unsustainable property tax situation at the Northport plant back on a sustainable path,” Nathan said.

The Town of Brookhaven and Village of Port Jefferson both announced they had reached settlements over the tax assessed value of the Port Jeff plant with LIPA in early April.

If the lawsuit is decided in LIPA’s favor, the utility company estimates that Town of Huntington residents would see their taxes increase by $62 a month, with Northport-East Northport school district residents responsible for an additional $210 to $220 per month.

Lupinacci has said the town remains open to bargaining with LIPA, while Cook said the only negotiation he is for is LIPA agreeing to withdraw its lawsuit.

“I will fight to the death on this one,” Cook said. “Either they want to be good neighbors or they don’t. If they don’t, they can hit the road.”

Town wins two court decisions against utility

The Northport power plant. File photo

Huntington Town is touting two court decisions boosting its case against the Long Island Power Authority in an ongoing challenge over the assessment of the Northport power plant and the amount the utility pays in property taxes on the facility.

The decisions, issued by State Supreme Court Justice John C. Bivona, were dated earlier this month and received by the town’s special counsel on Sept. 25. The first decision dismissed LIPA’s standing as a plaintiff in the case, since National Grid, and not LIPA, owns the plant, according to the decision.

The second decision granted a stay in the assessment case until there is a final court determination of the town’s argument that National Grid should be held to a 1997 pledge by LIPA not to challenge the plant’s assessment. So far, the town has won pretrial decisions in that case, according to a town statement.

LIPA is suing Huntington Town to recover some $270 million in property taxes it paid since 2010, arguing the aging Northport power plant facility is grossly over-assessed. Northport-East Northport school district is also a party in the lawsuit.

If LIPA wins, Huntington Town taxpayers could see a 15 percent increase in town property taxes and a 60 percent increase in school taxes, according to the town’s website.

The judge dismissed LIPA’s standing as a party initiating tax certiorari proceedings. In one of his decisions, Bivona said that while LIPA believes its financial interests are adversely impacted currently by a wrongly overstated assessment of the power plant, “the result is still remote and consequential and certainly does not constitute a direct loss because the property taxes levied upon the Northport Power Station are actually and directly paid by National Grid Generation, LLC.”

In the second decision, Bivona granted a stay to the town on each of the four tax certiorari proceedings National Grid commenced challenging taxes from 2010 to 2013. The stay was granted until completion of a case involving the town’s contention that National Grid, as the successor to LIPA, should be held to the 1997 pledge.

In previous decisions, the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court cited both a letter then-LIPA chairman Richard Kessel sent to the town and statements Kessel made to the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, during which he said he would drop any pending tax certiorari cases and not initiate any further ones at any time in the future. In return, the town promised not to increase the assessment on the plant. The town has not done so.

Most significantly, Bivona’s second decision means the court needs to consider the validity of the town’s 1997 pledge argument before embarking on a trial on the actual tax challenges — which promises to be complicated, lengthy and expensive.

“These two significant decisions help clarify the process for resolving these cases by first addressing the town’s key contention: that at the heart of the case is our belief that promises made by both sides should be kept,” Huntington Supervisor Frank Petrone said in a statement. “In the long run, resolving that question first should save taxpayers money by potentially obviating the need for a lengthy and expensive trial on the technical question of the assessment.”

A spokesman for the Long Island Power Authority said the utility didn’t have a comment on the issue.

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.

The Northport power plant. File photo

A new Huntington Town citizens group will boost a movement to upgrade the Northport power plant, independently studying the issue and submitting ideas to town officials.

The town board, on Tuesday, unanimously supported a measure co-sponsored by Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) and Councilman Mark Cuthbertson (D) to create the Repower Now Citizens Committee, a group of nine who will weigh in on an analysis the Long Island Power Authority and National Grid are conducting with respect to repowering, or upgrading, the plant.

Earlier this year, the state charged LIPA and National Grid with studying the feasibility of repowering the Northport power plant, the Port Jefferson power plant and others. Having the Repower Now Citizens Committee can only boost that effort, Cuthbertson and Petrone said in interviews with reporters after Tuesday’s meeting.

Local leaders want to see the aging Northport plant repowered so it will remain a source of energy and property tax revenue for years to come. Several local budgets, including that of the Northport-East Northport school district, rely heavily on the tax revenue.

Upgrading the Northport power plant can be done, Petrone said. It will be the new group’s responsibility to support repowering by producing a factual analysis on the issue.

“Our plant is probably the most viable plant to be utilized for that,” Petrone said, explaining Northport’s advantages in being repowered. “It has property available and it can be expanded. The need now is to put together a group to basically put some kind of study together … to support this. And there are many people out there that have expertise that we would wish to tap.”

Membership would include at least one person each from Northport and Asharoken villages, someone from the Northport-East Northport school district and members with engineering and sustainable energy backgrounds.

Repowering has another benefit: It may help settle a lawsuit LIPA brought against the town, challenging it over the value of the power plant.

LIPA claims the plant has been grossly over-assessed and the utility has overpaid taxes to the town. If LIPA’s suit is successful, the judgment could translate into double-digit tax increases for other Huntington Town and Northport-East Northport school district taxpayers.

If, however, the utility chooses to repower by upgrading the facility, the town has offered to keep its assessment flat, preventing those skyrocketing taxes.

“It’s a lawsuit that’s a very, very high-stakes lawsuit,” Cuthbertson told reporters after the meeting. “We have to look at both legal and political solutions, and political being through legislation. This is a part of trying to formulate a legislative solution and come up with a compromise that we might be able to work through.”

Petrone said he hopes to have the repowering citizens group assembled within a month.

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