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Cuomo budget proposal could cushion tax impact of Huntley closing

The state should phase out coal-burning energy plants over the next four years, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposes, but knowing that those plants also fuel local governments and school districts with millions of dollars in property taxes, he wants to put aside $19 million to help those affected communities.

The Town of Tonawanda, home to the soon-to-be closed Huntley power plant, is taking notice.

The plant is scheduled for closure in March, and that means the plant’s owner won’t be providing $2 million in tax revenue to the town and $3 milion to the Ken-Ton School District.

So the town and school district will be looking to other property owners to finance their budgets.

And that is where the $19 million fund the governor proposes could help.

“Based on what I’ve heard and what I’ve read, it looks like we’re going to be eligible for that pot of money and we’re going to be aggressively seeking it,” Town Supervisor Joseph H. Emminger said.

Emminger was among those present Dec. 18 in Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz’s office expressing concerns over plans to close Huntley and requesting the state review other possible options for the power-generating facility, including repowering with natural gas or biofuel.

The officials, which included Poloncarz and leaders from the town and school district, alleged the state Public Service Commission didn’t adquately address the potential for importing out-of-state power to ensure the grid’s local reliability and were concerned with the loss of jobs, municipal and school district revenue and future prospects a toxic legacy may be left behind at the site if Huntley were allowed to close.

But, the pool of money announced by Cuomo this week seems to be allaying some of those fears.

The Just Transition Coalition said it is optimistic about the funds Cuomo wants to put aside for affected communities.

The group, composed of the Clean Air Coalition, labor unions and teachers association, has been lobbying to secure money to make up the expected loss of revenue for the town, school district and Erie County.

“Should Huntley retire in March, we urge the Governor’s office to ensure that sufficient financial assistance from this fund is made accessible to the our local municipalities and the Kenmore-Tonawanda School District for a period of 5 years while economic development planning takes place to identify and bring new revenue opportunities to the Town,” the coalition said in a statement.

Three coal-fired power plants operate in New York state, and Huntley is the only one now scheduled for closure. These plants produce less than four percent of the state’s energy load, Cuomo said in his State of the State.

Under Cuomo’s proposal, the remaining two coal plants also would close or be repowered by natural gas to help reach the state’s goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector by 40 percent by 2030.

Environmental groups are hailing the governor’s plans for making New York “a leader” in the fight against climate change by moving away from coal.

“He said ‘yes’ to clean, renewable energy, and goodbye to dirty coal energy,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “By providing firm commitments for 50 percent renewable energy by 2030 and no more coal by 2020, it will ensure that the job gets done.”

While putting aside the $19 million for communities affected by coal plant closings, it is not certain where the money will be directed. More details will be released soon on guidelines and criteria for how communities can apply for the aid, said Conor Bambrick, of an Albany-based organization that advocates on state environmental issues.

“The governor, in the interest of cleaner air and climate, said coal has no place here in New York anymore,” said Bambrick. “But, in that same breath, he certainly demonstrated that he’s cognizant of the impact of losing these facilities on schools and municipalities.”

A “just transition” like the one underway in Tonawanda is necessary for any community faced with the loss of a fossil fuel power plant, Bambrick said.

“Some sort of an equitable transition needs to be set up statewide, because we’ve relied on these dirty power plants for so long,” Bambrick said. “Our economy has been built around those. So you can’t just say ‘Poof!’ one day, snap your fingers and move on to renewables and not deal with the consequences. A just transition is going to have to be part of the state’s overall climate strategy.”