Troy's Take: Beware Of The Commonwealth Bearing Gifts

Troy ClarksonAmy Rader Photographer - Troy Clarkson

If you went down to Naimesh and Akku Patel’s 7-11 on Main Street and bought a scratch ticket that resulted in winnings of $1.8 million, that would be great, right? 

What if, after scratching the ticket and expressing jubilation at your good fortune, you learned that there were strings attached to your windfall? What if those strings included inflicting pain and suffering on others?
That might change things.

Next week, our Town Meeting members, who take their position as our local elected legislature very seriously, will contemplate just such an enigma. The town has struck a deal with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) for a grant of up to $1.8 million to help mitigate some of the financial impacts of the court-ordered reduction in operational hours for the town’s wind turbines. Actually, the word “grant” is probably a misnomer. The commonwealth is proposing to provide the town with some much needed funds to replenish its bleeding wind turbine reserve account in exchange for a seat at the decision-making table related to the fate of the turbines. Even the MassCEC’s own boss acknowledged the convolution of this pending deal, which needs Town Meeting approval to move forward. “It’s somewhat complicated, but I think it represents an effort to strike a balance between helping to mitigate the financial impact the town is incurring on an ongoing basis,” chief executive officer Alicia Barton said.

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On its face, given that admission of complexity, this deal should not be approved by our local legislators. When government admits that something is complex, that means that it is downright confusing. The MassCEC’s board of directors just voted this bailout plan with strings attached within the last couple of weeks. To turn around and accept a deal that creates long-term obligations and liabilities for our community without a full vetting and public discussion on all of the financial, operational, and community impacts, particularly on an issue as volatile and injurious as this, would be imprudent and unwise. Our Town Meeting is neither.

I read the staff summary from the MassCEC on this convoluted deal, and I came out scratching my head at why the town would agree to the terms. Pages of legal mumbo-jumbo reveal one very important point: the CEC’s waiver of the default provision, meaning the town’s responsibility to pay all of the money back if the turbines are decommissioned, is only valid if it comes by a court order. In simpler terms, the MassCEC is buying a guarantee that the town will not decommission the turbines on its own as a resolution to the ongoing public health issues. I’m not advocating that as a solution by any means, but taking that off the table in exchange for cash is tantamount to selling out the neighbors who have been impacted and closing the door on any community-based solution. 

It is clear that the town is now losing money every year on these purported money-making machines. It is also clear that the town is facing an admittedly uphill battle in its court cases related to this ill-fated project. In fact, the CEC’s own report opines that, “the prospects are at best uncertain for an outcome that the town can manage financially.” It is becoming clear that the town is acting out of desperation and is willing to risk future financial ruin for short-term financial gain. That is never a good idea, and most assuredly is a terrible idea when the tradeoff includes the continued suffering of neighbors and taxpayers. Acceptance of this payoff from the MassCEC is, in its simplest terms, an excuse for the town to further delay a solution to this problem and foist the solution on a future board. Our own zoning board declared these turbines a nuisance. Our selectmen disagreed and are suing the ZBA. Adding the MassCEC to the table by selling them some decision-making authority only muddles an already painfully complex conundrum.

The great epic poet Virgil was right when he warned of those bearing gifts. He told the tale of the Trojan Horse and the hidden peril within. As Virgil warned, we should look askance at any cash deal from the government with strings attached. We should just plain look away from a cash deal when those strings form a noose around the neck of our own citizens.

(Mr. Clarkson may be contacted at votetroy99@aol.com and followed on Twitter @TroyClarkson59.)

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