In my experience, almost every spectacularly bad public policy idea has two common features: 1. It is based upon a disastrously false assumption about the benefits of the policy; and 2. It is fueled by the reckless greed of public officials and private beneficiaries in pursuit of public revenue or private profit.
The “Big Idea” captures the imagination of gullible officials who are seduced by the promise of getting something for nothing, but seemingly incapable of critical thinking; and it also garners support from the public, at least initially, since no one disagrees with universally desirable public goals, such as lowering taxes or providing financial assistance to the neediest members of the community.
But once the underlying assumptions are questioned, and the details are examined, the Big Idea often not only proves to be too good to be true but is also discovered to have dire adverse consequences for the public welfare.
Regrettably, when elected officials become overcommitted to a Big Idea as a signature issue, they often continue to defend it even after its defects become known — by repeating the disproven, faulty assumptions and adamantly ignoring its profound adverse impacts — and the Big Idea then becomes a Big Lie.
In Hopkinton, the Big Idea that indiscriminate commercial solar development in residential zones will resolve the town’s budget challenges or provide any relief to residents who struggle to pay their taxes is demonstrably, categorically, mathematically false.
In fact, the insignificant amount of additional revenue generated by these projects is incapable of accomplishing these objectives.
Therefore, the public officials who continue to promote this false idea — especially Town Council President Frank Landolfi and Councilor Barbara Capalbo — are now telling the public a Big Lie, since they have been repeatedly shown that these empty promises cannot be fulfilled.
Refusing to bow to mathematical reality or public sentiment, Mr. Landolfi and Ms. Capalbo are currently advocating that the residents of Hopkinton should accept the installation of a 172-acre industrial facility in a densely populated neighborhood bounded by Skunk Hill Road, Lisa Lane and Arcadia Road that is ringed with the homes of 63 families abutting the project.
They argue that this project is somehow critical to balancing the budget and, in the words of Councilor Capalbo, assisting the “hundreds and hundreds” of “my widows, my stressed, my fixed income, my people who cannot live here … my poor, the ones who can’t fight, who can’t come out at night.”
Mr. Landolfi, for his part, continually juxtaposes his support for these solar projects with his frustrations over the Chariho school budget, claims to be “a numbers guy,” and admits that “it’s all about the money.”
Consider, then, the numbers — the pitiful “payoff” from this proposal to install 65 acres of solar panels at Skunk Hill (70,000 solar panels) on the 172-acre residential site in this idyllic neighborhood, based on a memorandum prepared by the Hopkinton tax assessor for the Town Council:
. If the project were to be built, the incremental tax revenue to Hopkinton from all sources would be $165,600.
. Since the total budget for the Town of Hopkinton is approximately $25 million, the percentage increase in tax revenue to Hopkinton from the project is 0.6624%
($165,600 / $25 million).
. According to the tax assessor, the median tax assessment for a single- family home in Hopkinton is $220,900. The current mill rate in Hopkinton is $20.07 per $1,000 assessed value. Therefore, the tax assessed to the median single-family homeowner in Hopkinton is $4,433.46.
. Therefore, if the median single-family homeowner in Hopkinton received a tax benefit of 0.6624%, the homeowner’s annual property taxes would theoretically be reduced by: $29.37.
This is not a typographical error. To repeat: the median household will receive property tax “relief” that is equal to $29.37.
This figure is not an “opinion” or a “point of view,” as Councilors Landolfi and Capalbo have repeatedly asserted in an effort to wish this away. It is a cold hard fact.
As we can all agree, the “payoff” — $29.37 — is not a sufficient amount of money to keep a struggling family in their home or to make a whit of difference in balancing a $25 million budget. Meanwhile, 63 abutters (and many more in the neighborhood) whose properties have an average value of approximately $400,000 stand to lose 10%, 20%, or more, on the value of their homes – collectively 2.5 million, $5 million, or more.
The only way that such a program of industrial solar development can have any meaningful impact on the Hopkinton budget would be to “scale” the Big Idea dramatically — say by installing six or seven massive projects the size of Skunk Hill Solar to generate an incremental $1 million. This would require something on the order of 1,200 acres of land covered by 450 acres of solar panels — as many as 500,000 solar panels — to compound the misery in locations all over town.
Surely, even Councilors Landolfi and Capalbo — even though they have repeatedly demonstrated that they are completely out of touch with the preferences of the majority of their constituents — must know that there is no popular support for such an idea.
The bottom line is that this Big Idea is not only harmful. It is bankrupt.
What is even more toxic to the community than when a failed Big Idea becomes a Big Lie is when the big liars have such big egos that they are incapable of admitting error — that the Big Idea is a bust — or of acknowledging that their constituents, many of whom would be directly harmed, are vehemently opposed to such a transparently ineffectual and harmful idea, and when these same officials continue to use their megaphones, or a gavel in the case of the president, by virtue of their positions on the town council, to divide the community and prolong the communal suffering by promoting such a bad idea.
The writer is a member of Hopkinton Citizens for Responsible Planning.