GREG LOWER

ERIE – The developer of the Neosho Ridge Wind project made its first payment of $1.5 million to Neosho County Friday afternoon.

Apex Clean Energy, developer of the wind-powered electric generation project, made a wire transfer to the Neosho County Treasurer on Friday, County Clerk Randal Neely said.

The transfer came just hours after county commissioners said they had not received the payment. At Thursday evening’s meeting, opponents of the project addressed the county’s 2020 budget hearing, and urged commissioners to use funding from Neosho Ridge to offset a 5-mill increase in the levy.

County Commissioner Paul Westhoff said Monday that he thought it was odd that the commission discussed a moratorium on wind projects and the next day received the funds.

The money was a one-time payment to be made within 45 days after the start of construction. After completion, Neosho Ridge will make annual payments of $1 million for nine years in lieu of property taxes, which are exempt over 10 years. For the final payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT), $500,000 was moved from the final year to be included in this payment.

Apex is also supposed to make an annual payment of $5,000 to cover the county’s incidental expenses, which was added to the $1.5 million received Friday for a total payment of $1,505,000.

Commissioner David Orr said this first payment is a down payment on infrastructure.

The funds are earmarked with $800,000 for the Road and Bridge department; $500,000 for the General Fund; $100,000 for the Sheriff’s Department; and $100,000 for the commission’s discretionary fund.

The 2020 budget approved Thursday includes $2.4 million for Road and Bridge; $5.8 million for the General Fund; and $2.3 million for Law Enforcement. The total $14.3 million in expenses will include funding of $7.1 million in ad valorem taxes at a levy of 53.541 mills.

Accountant Rodney Burns said that because the money is a donation, it does not have to be spent through the budget, although the commission could use it to lower the tax levy.

Adjoining landowners have filed a civil lawsuit against the Neosho Ridge Wind project, seeking an injunction.

Commission Chair Gail Klaassen said the payment shows that Apex is holding up its part of the bargain. She said Apex could have hesitated due to the suit, but the fact the company paid shows its confidence.

She said the project could be completed in November of next year, and the first PILOT would be in May of 2021. Otherwise and until then, the citizens are still responsible for the budget.

“I can’t speak for the next 10 commissions,” Klaassen said.

She  said  the  levy  increase is not a big hike and the county has not had an increase in five to six years.

Asked if Apex might seek the money back if the injunction blocks the project, Klaassen said she can’t see that happening. She said an injunction would not change the position of the county and would be between Apex and the plaintiffs; the county is not named in the suit.

“All of that would have to play out in court,” she said.

Orr said Apex cannot take the money back, but Westhoff said it may be a good idea to hold onto the funds in case Apex could.

Orr is more concerned about the lawsuit’s impact on future PILOT deposits. He said the agreements tried to protect the county.

Westhoff said he plans to discuss a moratorium on wind power development at the next commission meeting.

Both Westhoff and Klaassen have submitted proposals for moratoriums, and both motions have died for lack of a second without a vote.

Westhoff said the payment issue could have been a double slap against property owners who fear the wind project will decrease property values.

He mentioned a report by McCann Appraisal to an Illinois county board, which the Neosho County appraiser reviewed. The report states real estate sale data shows a 25 to 40 percent decline, but does not give specifics or case histories.

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