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Supervisor sees future blowing in the wind

Richard J. Meyers looks out the windows of his century-old Lake Road home and sees the future in harnessing the wind to generate power in this lakeside farming community.

Meyers quit his job as a process specialist at Du Pont Co. last spring to start a business installing residential windmills. But after taking office last week as Somerset supervisor, he has set that aside "to look at building a wind farm for the town instead."

Meyers, a political newcomer, defeated John E. Sweeney Jr., the incumbent, 273-236, in the Republican Party primary in September. When Sweeney mounted a write-in campaign in the November election, Meyers won again, 605-343. Democrats did not field a candidate.

The election gave Meyers the year remaining in the term of Herbert A. Downs, who resigned as supervisor last January to become administrative director of the Niagara County Water District. The Town Board had appointed Sweeney to fill the vacancy.

Meyers said he was drawn to politics when he perceived the town was stalemating the construction of windmills. The town had imposed a moratorium on windmill construction in March 2005 but adopted measures last July to govern wind power operations.

Meyers says he believes his door-to-door campaign to stir interest among residents had spurred the Town Board to act.

"I've always had what I'd call a 'political spirit,' " he said.

During his door-to-door campaign, he met longtime resident Dan Hogan.

"I thought he was fantastic," the retiree said of Meyers. "He was very direct, honest and straightforward. . . . He's got a tough job, but he has to remember he's got the [majority of the] people of the town behind him."
Once Meyers won the primary, which is tantamount to election in this overwhelmingly Republican town, he really started doing his homework. He said he spent 20 to 30 hours per week preparing for his new role.

"There are a lot of things I'd like to see happen," he said.

>Board rejects move

Of course, he will need the cooperation of the board majority. He knows he's an outsider but describes himself as optimistic.

"I think the Town Board wants what's best for the town, just like I do," he said. "I think if I can present to them an alternative way to attack some issues, I hope they'll have an open mind, and we can move ahead. There are some issues we need to address, but all I ask is a fair listen."

But things didn't get off to a good start last week, when the board voted down his effort to seek a new town attorney.

None of the councilmen would second Meyers' motion to extend the contract of Edwin J. Shoemaker of Andrews, Pusateri, Brandt, Shoemaker & Roberson for two months while seeking fresh bids. Instead, the board voted, 4-1, with Meyers the only opponent, to rehire Shoemaker's firm for a full year.

During his campaign, Meyers had criticized the town's spending on legal services. Town Clerk Rebecca A. Connolly said Shoemaker's firm billed the town $282,889 last year. She said Shoemaker does not receive a salary or a retainer fee, but he and his colleagues charge $125 an hour for regular town business and $175 an hour for litigation.

And Somerset has plenty of litigation, primarily against AES Corp., the largest property taxpayer in Niagara County. The company is suing the town over the assessment on its Lake Road power plant, and a battle continues over environmental questions stemming from the company's need to dig a new landfill to hold fly ash produced by coal burned at the plant.

>Attorney defended

Councilman Randall J. Wayner defended retaining the town attorney.

"I feel Ed Shoemaker and his firm have done a good job for the town," he said. "We have ongoing litigation, and I felt it would be a very poor signal to consider changing attorneys."

Wayner said he does not oppose seeking bids but says the board needs time to develop criteria for evaluating them.

Meyers said he doesn't object to the hourly rates Shoemaker's firm charges but to "a lack of oversight."

"The issue is the number of hours they bill," Meyers said. "I get an idea that if we give a certain amount of dollars [in the budget], they're going to take all those dollars."

Shoemaker did not return a call seeking comment.

>Presentation scheduled

Leading Meyers' to-do list is getting the ball rolling on securing a wind farm "to benefit the whole town."

While AES showed interest in such a project last year, Meyers said, "I don't plan on AES building this, but rather someone from outside."

He's considering the fledgling firm Empire State Wind Energy, started two months ago by billionaire businessman B. Thomas Golisano.

Golisano had previously helped several Western New York communities fight wind farms in rural areas but now vows to develop wind farms and give most of the profits back to the communities.

Keith Pitman, president and chief executive officer of Empire State Wind Energy, is to make a presentation to the Town Board at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Meyers said he would like to see Empire State build the wind turbines at least partially on AES property. The new company offers to build the wind farm in exchange for a host community agreement, which would include a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT.

According to its Web site, Empire State would offer the town "100 percent profit-taking and ownership options at mutually agreeable times."

"This really is a generous offer," Meyers said. But he said he would like the town's ordinance amended to reduce the required distance between a wind turbine and a home in an agricultural area. He called the current distance -- 1,500 feet -- "overrestrictive" and said it should be reduced to 1,000 or 1,200 feet.

>Tax deal opposed

Wayner has his doubts. "An awful lot of work and thought went into that ordinance, some of it from him," the councilman said, noting Meyers served on a study committee. "I would have to see some very compelling reason to make any changes."

Meyers said he opposes the PILOT the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency granted to AES and said it should be rescinded, primarily because of its impact on Barker Central School District taxes.

"From my perspective, the impact on town finances is going to be minuscule," Meyers said. He said any town revenue losses would be offset by avoiding the costs of further litigation over previous assessments, lawsuits that the PILOT deal calls for AES to drop.

He met with AES last week to broach his idea of negotiating a new assessment for the power plant to replace the PILOT.

"We need to repair the rift between the town and AES," Meyers said. "We shouldn't hand everything over to them, but it doesn't benefit the town to fight them on everything. . . . We live with AES here, and we should have the advantages of that. We should work with them to get low-cost power, because if we can get low-cost power, we can attract small to midsized businesses. They don't have to be industrial, but we do have to diversify our tax base."

>Web site changes

He denied allegations that AES had funded his campaign, as his detractors claim. No such contributions are listed on his financial disclosure forms.

Meyers said he also wants to improve the town government's Web site to include posting the town budget "because I'm big on open government, and you should know where your tax dollars are going. The Web site should serve as a portal into the inner workings of town government."

While acknowledging he cannot possibly achieve everything he would like in one year, Meyers said he wanted "to get a good chunk of this rolling. I will run again in November -- that's guaranteed."

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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