Leaked document questions need for solar study
One of the first actions of the new Sussex County Freeholder Board in January of 2016 was to spend a half million dollars of taxpayers' money on a study to figure out how the county's solar project went sour. The solar project, which was the brainchild of Morris County politicians and the Morris County Improvement Authority, ultimately cost Sussex County taxpayers millions -- and with the bill set to go as high as $40 million, the pain will be felt in higher property tax bills for many years to come.
Led by Freeholder boss George Graham, a political consultant who counted a number of Hudson County Democrats as his clients, the incoming Freeholder Board hired a New York City law firm to conduct a review of the failed solar project in Sussex County. As the New Jersey Herald reported on January 28, 2016:
A private investigation of Sussex County's embattled solar project, to be led by ex-State Comptroller Matthew Boxer, gained authorization Wednesday night.
In a 3-2 vote, the county freeholder board approved an agreement hiring Boxer and his firm, Lowenstein Sandler LLP. The review will take up to a year, with the payments by the county to the law firm capped at $500,000.
(Note that the review which was to "take up to a year" is still not completed.)
How did the taxpayers of Sussex County end up on the hook for a $500,000.00 contract to hire a New York City law firm? Whose idea was it to hire the firm?
Did the selection process begin in the open, at the Freeholder Board meeting in Newton, or did it take place months earlier at a political campaign meeting about taking over the Freeholder Board, long before the majority of those freeholders voting in favor of it were even elected?
Since handing out the contract, the stated goals of the $500,000.00 study have been somewhat downgraded. In January 2016, its supporters told the New Jersey Herald (January 28, 2016) that they could "recover $20 million" for Sussex County taxpayers. By the end of last year however, the Freeholders who supported the study were singing a different tune: "We've got to finish up and close out the solar process." (Star-Ledger, December 31, 2016)
Now leaked executive session minutes from the Freeholder meeting of September 18, 2014, show that the Board understood exactly who was at fault and how to proceed in order to claw back taxpayers' money. Even then Freeholder Gail Phoebus, who from the minutes appears to have had some difficulty in comprehending the complex financial arrangements of the solar project, understood who the culprits were:
Understanding who was at fault and how to proceed in order to recover taxpayers' money were the very reasons cited for having the study that is now costing Sussex County taxpayers another half million dollars -- only now, there appears to be no appetite by the Board to get any money back. On top of this, the Board has continued to employ some of the same consultants and attorneys they blamed for the problem back in 2014 -- 3 years ago!
The uses for the 1603 money are very clearly specified by the United States Treasury Department:
1603 Program: Payments for Specified Energy Property in Lieu of Tax Credits
The purpose of the 1603 payment is to reimburse eligible applicants for a portion of the cost of installing specified energy property used in a trade or business or for the production of income. A 1603 payment is made after the energy property is placed in service; a 1603 payment is not made prior to or during construction of the energy property.
With a study going on for a year and costing taxpayers $500,000.00, why hasn't this been acted upon?