GELD Commission Chair Kevin Lindemer tells the Board of Selectmen that GELD’s PILOT will be half what they expected.
Sparks flew at Monday evening’s Board of Selectmen’s meeting when the Commissioners of the Groton Electric Light Department told the Board of Selectmen that GELD was reducing its annual payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to the town from $30,000 to $15,000. As a town department and municipal utility, GELD does not pay property taxes to the town — instead, it makes a voluntary annual contribution, which this year it chopped in half.
The unanimous decision by the GELD commissioners came in the wake of round after round of appearances in front of town permitting bodies, especially the Conservation Commission and Planning Board, as it sought approval to build new offices and garages on its current lot on Station Avenue, parts of which are defined as wetlands and buffer areas. The new construction was approved months ago, but only after what the GELD commission calls “unconscionable fees” associated with repeated changes and redrawn plans.
GELD began the permitting process in 2010 and received final approval from the last board, the Planning Board, at the very end of 2012. In the early stages of its building proposal, GELD estimated that its permitting fees and the associated plans and legal expenses would be $92,473. At the end of the process, GELD spent that and an additional $151,571, which adds up to $244,044, according to a spreadsheet GELD sent the BoS. GELD manager Kevin Kelly pointed out that instead of going through the town’s permitting process, GELD could have totally bypassed local regulations by getting approval from the state Department of Public Utilities, because the state regulations trump local.
Commission Chairman Kevin Lindemer made the announcement and explained GELD’s reasons, and that angered most of the selectmen. They responded with accusations that GELD had expected special treatment, that the utility had been unprepared for the rigorous permitting examinations, and that the town’s boards and commissions had been bound to enforce the letter of the town’s bylaws.
Chairman Peter Cunningham and Vice Chair Josh Degen both thought GELD’s payment reduction was punitive. Selectwoman Anna Eliot characterized Lindemer’s complaints as “whining,” and pointed out that no one had forced GELD to build where it is constructing its new building. Both Degen and Eliot told the GELD Commissioners to “suck it up” and go on with business. Degen asked the town accountant, Patricia DuFresne, to find the dollar value of the in-kind services the town provides GELD, warning Lindemer that the town could begin charging for what have always been free services.
What we’re doing is that we’d like somebody to fix the accountability and responsibility.
“If you interpret our pointing out that what we went through is unacceptable, as whining, I’m really sorry that that is the only way that you can interpret that. Because I’m not going to back off of it. This is simply dollars and cents and pointing out inefficiencies. If you want to defend a process that is inefficient, hinders development, and causes costs to go up unnecessarily, fine,” Lindemer told the board.
“You keep using the word ‘punish,’” Lindemer said. “What we’re doing is that we’d like somebody to fix the accountability and responsibility.”
The selectmen and Town Manager Mark Haddad were also upset that GELD made the move just weeks before the new fiscal year begins. While the $15,000 cut doesn’t make a huge impact in a $30M+ annual budget, the cut in revenue does have to be made up somewhere.
Coming in the wake of a $100,000 GELD grant to the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District, Lindemer was quick to point out that the utility commissioners were making a point — that the town’s permitting process is broken.
GELD Commissioner Rodney R. Hersh agreed, pointing out that the GELD cut wouldn’t cripple the town. “It was 30 thousand, five of which went to police dispatch and another 25 went to general government. We cut it to five for police dispatch and ten for general government. Now any big organization ought to be able to find one percent waste somewhere and cut it. It’s trivial. Five percent even.”
The new GELD office and garage
Both Hersh and Lindemer were irked that none of the town boards or commissions would consider granting GELD an exemption from a strict interpretation of the permitting rules, particularly in the wetlands bylaw.
“My understanding is that in the wetlands bylaw, there is language that permits exceptions, for various applications and mitigating circumstances. And those were totally ignored in our case,” Hersh said.
Both commissioners also pointed out that none of the permitting problems would have happened if GELD had built on its existing building’s foot print. But instead, GELD shifted its buildings to the rear of its lot to create more space in the Station Avenue district. The shift in location triggered the extensive reviews.
“We were trying to help the town with some of its goals by moving up the street, and no good deed goes unpunished,” Hersh said.
Cunningham said after the meeting that the GELD PILOT cut wasn’t totally unexpected. “We knew that they were upset about it. They were doing a PILOT at $50,000 at one point and they reduced that to thirty. So I think we knew they were upset about it, about the whole issue of the permitting and what they went through with Conservation (Commission). (According to Lindemer and Kelly, GELD has never given $50,000. Kelly said $50,000 was a suggestion from Haddad to GELD, but the utility’s regular PILOT payment has been $30,000. — Ed.)
“I would repeat what I said in the meeting: Any entity coming in with a major project should come in with an appropriate application with an appropriate development team to advance that project. They did not do that, and many of the problems they’re complaining about, I think, were self-inflicted. If they’d done it right the first time, they wouldn’t have incurred so many expenses.”
If they’d done it right the first time, they wouldn’t have incurred so many expenses.
“But fundamentally, there is the local wetlands protection bylaw that we have adopted, that was approved at a town meeting by voters. Voters knew what they approved when they voted for that. They wanted further restrictions on development close to wetlands, additional protections for endangered species, so on and so forth. That whole conversation took place in 2001 when the bylaw was adopted, so it was certainly well known what the intention of that bylaw was.”
“They’re (GELD Commissioners) pretty much saying, in my view, that town meeting were a bunch of knuckleheads, basically, and they (GELD) should not have to be impacted by those decisions and the actions of the board in enforcing the bylaw,” Cunningham said.
Lindemer allowed that not all of the permitting process was onerous.
“We had about $151,000 that we thought was excessive in the permitting process. And then in the process, the design changes and everything we went through added another… probably $250,000. And some of those changes were perfectly reasonable. Like, working with the Design Review Committee, we worked with them and they were saying, ‘We’d like to have this type of granite and this type of brick and stuff like that,’ and we were all going, ‘Oh yeah, that’s OK, that’s cool,’ to make it look nice and make it part of the community.”
Lindemer pointed out that the amount of GELD’s PILOT contribution is an annual decision, and the commission had not made a long-term decision to fix its contribution at $15,000.