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Fulton County board backs law to alter river district fees

Wednesday, March 23, 2011
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— The Fulton County Board of Supervisors has endorsed federal legislation to enable the Hudson River Black River Regulating District to once again assess fees to downstream hydroelectric plants.

The legislation is being supported by the Sacandaga Protection Committee and would essentially revert the river district to the status quo before a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling effectively cut off 80 percent of revenue for HRBRRD’s Hudson River area. The court ruled in 2008 that the Federal Power Act superseded the state law HRBRRD had been using to assess fees and prohibited the district from passing on the cost of its local property taxes to plants licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Since then, HRBRRD has been reeling from a funding crisis and the governments all around it have been paying the price. HRBRRD owes $3.2 million in taxes to Fulton County and school districts around the Great Sacandaga Lake and has been trying to replace its lost revenue source by extracting $4.5 million in first-time-ever flood control fees from Albany, Saratoga, Rensselaer, Warren and Washington counties. The district is now embroiled in two lawsuits, one in Saratoga County Supreme Court over the flood control bills and the other in Fulton County Supreme Court over the unpaid taxes.

Fulton County Administrative Officer Jon Stead said the Board of Supervisors, which voted 16-0 on March 14 in support of endorsing the change in federal law, wants the federal government to help solve the escalating fiscal crisis caused by the court decision.

“The Sacandaga Protection Committee had asked us for a resolution supporting a concept they had rolled out, and that’s what the board did. I think this is important to everybody in the community, not just the county and the school districts,” Stead said. “It’s not just about the tax issue. The HRBRRD needs revenue to operate the way they are structured.”

Joe Sullivan, co-chairman of the Sacandaga Protection Committee, said his organization has hired lobbying firm Bolton-St. Johns to press for the change to the federal law. The committee was originally formed as an organization to oppose changes to HRBRRD’s lake access permit system and has quickly established itself as an influential force around the lake.

“We’re just a small group of people in upstate New York trying to get the federal government to change a law. The system had worked very well for the last 80 years. The people who were benefitting from the production of power [aided by the Conklingville Dam] were helping to pay most of the tax expenses,” Sullivan said. “This would protect taxpayers, help the school districts and help the five downstream counties because they don’t get hit with that enormous flood control bill.”

Sullivan said Bolton-St. Johns, through its Washington office, has been in contact with U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, about trying to fix the HRBRRD problem with new legislation. Sullivan said Gibson has shown interest in promoting the legislation.

Gibson’s staff did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. Neither did U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh.

Staff of U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, said he is aware of the issue but wouldn’t comment on whether he supports any specific change to federal law.

 
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