Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Town Council skirts solar farm issues

Michael Hillman

(4/4) In an amazing display of bureaucratic doublespeak, the Emmitsburg town staff failed to address any of the issues raised in the April article outlining the potential of upwards to $1 million in losses faced by the town as a result of the contracts signed to purchase all the power produced from the solar farms located next to the Waste Water Treatment Facility.

The most troubling aspect of the town’s failure to address the facts is that Mayor Briggs admitted in his column in the Catoctin Banner, for all intents and purposes, that our underlying numbers used in the determination of the long term losses faced by the town were, in fact, accurate.

During the presentation on Emmitsburg’s comprehensive energy plan, town staff refused to clarify that Emmitsburg was in fact losing money from the sale of excess electricity. Instead of using the actual term ‘losses’ to describe the financial losses the town continues to incur, staff chose to use the term ‘cost.’ To add insult to injury, throughout the presentation, the staff used the color red to indicate savings instead of losses, further muddying the numbers and making their presentation that much more difficult to understand.

Staff reported to the Town Council that on the day of the presentation they had identified $10,000 in savings as a result of unspecified reductions in electric service charges, but they failed to provide any details on said reductions.

When questioned by Commissioner Ritz about the basis behind the note in his Mayor’s column in the Banner citing a $1,300 ‘gap’ in the difference between what the town was paying for excess electricity and what is was selling it back for, Briggs backtracked and latched onto this new supposed savings, and declared he was wrong. None of the commissioners challenged the Mayor that the supposed ‘savings’ from ‘reductions in electric service charges’ had nothing to do with the losses the town is incurring from the sale of excess electricity, which if uncorrected, could result in a loss of over $500,000 to the town over the life of the solar farm contract. In his closing comments, Commissioner O’Donnell, in trying to mollify Commissioner Ritz, repeated Briggs’ failed interpretation of this fact.

Commissioner Sweeny’s one contribution to the discussion was to question if the so called ‘rebates’ – the payment from Potomac Edison - had been applied to existing budget items, as if the money was ‘new money,’ demonstrating that he failed to understand the nature of the payments. Commissioners Buckman and Blanchard asked no questions during the presentation.

The staff’s report did not address, nor did the Town Council – other than Commissioner Ritz - question, the basis behind Mayor Briggs’ decision to solicit the construction of the second solar farm, when its power was clearly not needed – and which is the source of the ongoing losses to the town. In the county zoning variance request for the second solar farm, Briggs’ stated that all the power from that second farm would be used for Emmitsburg alone when it was clearly known by the staff that it was not.

Additionally, the staff report did not address, nor did the Town Council – apart from Commissioner Ritz - question Briggs’ decision to sign the second contract, which locked the town into another 20 year deal, in spite of the fact that the first contract was already under water. The council failed to notice that staff’s comment that the town is paying less now to Potomac Edison was not a result of cost savings, but instead, the town is now paying the owners of the solar farm for power.

When Briggs raised the issue of other community organizations joining the solar farm contract, no one addressed why the Vigilant Hose Company was being charged the higher rate for electricity from the first solar farm as opposed to the lower rate from the second solar farm which would result in a $225 reduction in the VHC's monthly electric bill, and if this policy of charging a higher rate would be carried over to any organization.

When asked if they knew where we received our data that formed the basis of our article, town staff failed to reveal that they had provided it to us. Staff also failed to address Commissioner Ritz’s question concerning the impact of the drop in electrical rates; instead they cited dubious Internet numbers.

Town staff repeatedly stated that all the ‘numbers’ related to the solar farm were officially audited, but they failed to note that the purpose of an audit is to verify that any bills received were paid, not if the charges are in the best interest of the town, something that would be an outcome of a formal financial analysis of the potential long term effects of the solar farm contracts and the potential losses the town is facing as a result of the effects.

Other than Commissioner Joe Ritz, it appears that neither the Mayor, the town staff nor the other Commissioners have taken the time to understand the implications of the issue raised by our report. Town Council has a fiduciary responsibility to oversee not only current town financial outlays, but to budget for future outlays. In the case of the implications of the town’s commitments to purchases all the power from the solar farms, they have clearly not done so.

Read other news stories related to Emmitsburg