Editor's note: This letter will not appear in the print edition of The Westerly Sun.
This letter is in response to a Guest Opinion from Eric Bibler in the April 16 issue of The Sun entitled “Solar won’t solve Hopkinton’s budget woes”.
As the Hopkinton Town Council President, I always provide town residents and business owners with the facts as I see them. In Mr. Bibler’s Guest Opinion article, his reference to the false assumption of the benefits, in this case solar benefits, makes no sense. The benefits of solar energy are numerous and are reflected throughout the Town’s Comprehensive Plan. Commercial solar development provides much-needed revenue for the Town of Hopkinton.
In addition, Mr. Bibler’s reference to the reckless greed of public officials and private profit is inflammatory, inaccurate and unsupported by the facts. As elected officials, the Hopkinton Town Council has a fiduciary responsibility to make the best financial decisions for all residents and business owners. Greed plays no part whatsoever in these decisions. The Town is required to balance its budget on an annual basis. It is a plan to ensure that anticipated expenses do not exceed anticipated revenues. With respect to private profits, they are generated from successful business ventures, which is a hallmark of capitalism.
His next few paragraphs speak to “Big Ideas” and underlying assumptions. My response to that rhetoric is that I personally review, in detail, every solar project that comes before the Hopkinton Town Council. Each project has its advantages and disadvantages, and each is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Commercial solar development review is not done indiscriminately, as alleged by Mr. Bibler. He likes to refer to the approval of solar as a “Big Lie” because his message does not resonate with some Town Council members and land owners, and that bothers him. Personally, I have been very consistent in my position, regarding the need for additional revenue to offset runaway Chariho School budgets.
He further incorrectly states that additional revenue will not assist in the reduction and affordability of town taxes. It takes approximately $8,500.00 to reduce the tax rate $.01, per thousand, of assessed valuation. Two solar projects that were rejected by the Town Council would have brought in $5,820 in Planning Board review fees and $702,000 in building permit fees, both of which are a one-time source of revenue. In addition, they would have brought in $300,350 in tangible tax revenue (each year) and $175,706 in real property taxes (each year). Just the receipt of the building permitting fees would have balanced the Town’s FY 2019-20 budget. Initially, there was a proposed increase in the Chariho School budget of $605,000 and a reduction in state aid to education of $97,000—a total of $702,000. It is crystal clear that Mr. Bibler has no clue what he is talking about. He never attended any Town budget meetings. When asked if he voted in the Chariho School budget referendum, his answer was no. The Chariho budget is approved or rejected based on the total number of yes and nay votes. We needed every nay vote we could obtain to reduce their budget. Because this would have been for the greater good, it did not coincide with Mr. Bibler’s self-absorbed, narrow minded objectives.
His next few paragraphs go on about the need for revenue and my fixation with the Chariho School budget. Let me put it in layman’s terms. Your household budget has income and expenses. If you keep increasing your debt and your income remains the same, you will reach a point whereby you either need to go out and get a second job, apply for a better paying job, reduce your overall expenses, or a combination of all three. It’s the same way with the Town. The school takes in 76 cents of every dollar collected by the Town. The Chariho School expenses came in $705,000 higher, which resulted in a $0.83 tax increase, per assessed valuation. As a Town, we exceeded our state-mandated 4% tax levy cap by almost 1%. These increased school expenses exemplify why reductions in the Chariho School budget were so important. I, as well as the other councilors, attended numerous Chariho School Committee meetings where I repeatedly asked for further reductions. The only small concession was a 1% reduction in healthcare costs that was suggested by the School Committee chairperson, who lives in another town. It reduced Hopkinton’s budget responsibility by $20,465. So, if you think that I am obsessed with the school budget, you bet I am. It means lower tax rates for everyone in Town. A balanced budget has and will remain my main focus when seeking elected office. If defending a lower tax rate is something I am accused of doing, then I am perfectly fine with such criticism.
Next, I will correct the four bullet points in the opinion piece -- one-by-one.
Bullet point number 1: Mr. Bibler states that incremental tax revenue to Hopkinton from all sources is $165,600 for the Skunk Hill projects; however, he conveniently does not mention that the projects would also bring in an estimated $234,820 in Planning Board review and building permitting fees. Although it is a one-time revenue source, it is a considerable amount of money. This misrepresentation serves as a good example of his selective retention.
Bullet point number 2: This is where his calculation is dead wrong. He is dividing the projected annual tax revenue of $165,600 by the total budget of $25,000,000. By dividing the project revenue by the total budget, you are dividing it by non-tax revenue such as departmental revenue, state aid to education, etc. This method of calculation does not determine the impact to the tax rate. By adding $165,600 to the tax roll it would not decrease the amount of departmental revenue or state aid we receive. He is basically saying that tax revenue pays for 100% of the Town’s budget and by doing so he is inflating the denominator in his calculation and creating a random percentage of 0.6624%. The correct way to calculate the impact to the tax rate is by reducing the tax levy of $17,724,929 by the $165,600, which would reflect a .20 mill rate. Therefore, by adding $165,600 to the total net assessed value of the Town, the mill rate could be reduced by $.20 and the Town would get the same amount in tax levy.
Bullet point number 3: He uses a median household tax assessment of $220,900, which is conveniently less than the average household tax assessment of $233,195--wrong again.
Bullet point number 4: The correct calculation would be a reduction in the mill rate of .20 multiplied by the median household tax assessment of $220,900, for a reduction of $44.18 or a reduction in the mill rate of $0.48. If you factor in the $234,820 of revenue (yes, one time Mr. Bibler, but it matters) collected from the Planning Board and building permit fees, it would be a reduction of $106.03 to the median household. This would equate to a reduction of $60.00 per year on a tax bill for a $300,000 valued home or a reduction of $144.00, if you factored in the $234,820 of revenue collected from Planning Board review fees and building permit fees.
Mr. Bibler also states that abutters to the Skunk Hill project stand to lose 10%, 20% or more on the value of their homes. These projections for this project are unsubstantiated by any independent analysis of the local real estate market. His statements are unsupported and not founded in fact.
Mr. Bibler’s financial projections relate to the Skunk Hill project, which by itself may not solve the Town’s budgetary issues. However, he fails to mention all those previously approved solar projects and those in the pipeline whose combined revenue stream would generate millions of dollars and have a meaningful and positive financial impact in the town’s budgets for years to come.
As a side note, Brushy Brook would have brought in an estimated $476,056 in annual tax revenue (mill rate reduction of $0.57) and another $705,820 from Planning Board and building permit fees, which would be an additional reduction in the mill rate of $0.85, aside from the other benefits negotiated with the developer. I only mention this project for revenue illustration purposes only. It is not intended to single out any council members for how they voted. Important to note.
The next few paragraphs go on and on about how many solar panels are needed to reduce the Town budget in a meaningful way, how much I ignore the 63 abutters and the majority of constituents, etc. As for the 63 abutters, I have tried to answer and listen to their concerns. They feel strongly about their position, as I do. I am hopeful a compromise can be achieved. As for listening to the majority of the constituents, I always do. As I have mentioned in my prior decisions, most of the residents that rely on me to assist/help/solve their issues in town are not at the hearings and trust me to make the best decisions on their behalf. I do this by looking at the financial impact to the taxpayers and try to maintain effective and efficient town services with affordable tax rates.
The final section of this article deals with the different types of solar projects and projects their respective revenue streams. They are broken down in the form of planning board fees, building permit fees, tangible taxes and real estate taxes.
Town-approved projects that require no Town Council approval: 16 projects. Planning Board fees total $6,210 and building permit fees total $462,261 (one time revenue sources). Tangible tax revenue totals $165,690 and real estate tax revenue totals $118,660 (annual revenue sources).
No zone change-needed projects: 3 projects. Planning Board fees total $900.00 and building permit fees total $90,000 (one time revenue sources). Tangible tax revenue totals $28,340 and real estate tax revenue totals $12,307, per year.
Zone changes being requested: 9 projects in the pipeline at various stages. If approved, Planning Board fees would total $6,920 and building permit fees would total $595,000 (one time revenue sources). Tangible tax revenue would total $212,135 and real estate tax revenue would total $135,719, each year.
Taken together, one-time Planning Board fees and building permit fees for the previously mentioned projects total $1,161,291. Annual tangible tax revenue of the projects total $406,165 and annual real property tax revenue total $266,686.
These are facts, not lies. These projects generate revenue to offset the rising Chariho School budget, keep the town running in the black, and place a limited amount of funds aside for a rainy day fund. Project revenue is needed to continue operation of town services and make life affordable for all who live and work here.
If anyone thinks a small town like Hopkinton doesn’t need the revenue, I urge you to attend the numerous budget meetings we conduct each and every year. It will open your eyes to what financial issues town officials have to deal with, especially the continually rising Chariho School expenses and reductions in state aid to education.
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many department heads who contributed to this article. It is comforting to know that one can obtain accurate data and reliable information from the proper sources.
Frank Landolfi is the president of the Hopkinton Town Council.