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State budget plan adds millions to cushion impact of Huntley plant closing

When NRG Energy closed the Huntley Power Plant a year ago, the impact on Erie County communities included not only the loss of jobs, but also a loss of $5.4 million a year in property taxes.

The state came to the aid in 2016, creating a $30 million fund to help counties, cities, towns and school districts across the state that lost tax revenue because of the closing of an electric generating power plant.

The Town of Tonawanda, the Kenmore-Tonawanda School District and Erie County received a total of $4.3 million in aid in 2017 from the state's Electric Generation Facility Cessation Mitigation Program, or 80 percent of the tax revenue they lost because of the Huntley plant closing. But those funds will only be available for five years and are scheduled to decrease incrementally each year, equaling only 20 percent of the lost taxes in the fifth year.

On Wednesday, Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore and State Sen. Chris Jacobs, D-Buffalo, announced what they called a "major win" for taxpayers in the Town of Tonawanda and Ken-Ton School District, successfully including language in both the Assembly and Senate one-house budget bills that would provide millions of dollars more in state aid to communities impacted by closed power plants as well as extending the number of years they can get aid.

But there's no guarantee those proposals will be included in the state budget the State Legislature is expected to approve by April 1.

Under the Assembly plan, the total aid to the Town of Tonawanda, Ken-Ton School District and Erie County would jump by $5.4 million, from $13.5 million to $18.9 million.

Under the Senate plan, the funds available to help affected communities statewide would double from $30 million to $60 million and aid would be available for up to 10 years.

Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph H. Emminger applauded the efforts to help the town, Ken-Ton school district and Erie County, noting that if the proposed funding stays in the final budget it will allow the town to plan for what lies ahead without impacting the quality of life and public safety of the community.

"Everybody tells me it will be 10 to 15 years before they get that plant to be cleaned up," said Emminger. "(State leaders) are recognizing that this is a long-term problem."

He said Jacobs' proposal would provide grants to the town for 10 years, with 100 percent reimbursement of lost taxes in the first year, and the grants would decrease by only 10 percent annually.

Schimminger has proposed state aid be provided over seven years to the affected communities.

"By proposing these further improvements to the program, we are ensuring more time for municipalities and school districts to stabilize in the wake of Huntley's closure and providing more help if needed," said Schimminger  in a statement.

Jacobs agreed, noting, "The extended schedule gives all stakeholders much needed additional time to replace any tax shortfalls as a result of the Huntley closure as well as time to evaluate and plan for the future of the site."

Ken-Ton Interim Superintendent Stephen Bovino said the proposed increase in funding, as well as extending the number of years, would enable the district to maintain programming while the Huntley property is in transition.

In 2016, the state provided Ken-Ton with $2.1 million in aid from the Electric Generation Facility Cessation Mitigation Program, the Town of Tonawanda received $1.4 million and Erie County received $720,000. If the funding proposals are not adopted in the final state budget, the state aid in 2018 will be at 65 percent of the lost taxes, which is $1.76 million for Ken-Ton, $1.17  million to the Town of Tonawanda and $585,000 to Erie County.

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