The city of Schenectady plans to challenge a court ruling preventing it from getting information from a state agency on National Grid property in the city.
The city tried to get the information from the state Office of Real Property Services under the Freedom of Information Law, but the state denied the city’s request. Now, Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden is taking the issue to the Court of Appeals, the same court that once allowed the city to deny a Freedom of Information Law request for police discipline records.
“I’m going to go before the court and say, ‘Here I am on the other side of the issue now,’” Van Norden said with a laugh.
But the issue is hardly a joking matter, he added. The city wants to know more about National Grid’s utilities, in order to determine whether the company is underassessed. Currently National Grid pays taxes on an equalized assessment of $28.4 million, so any increase in that assessment could earn the city thousands of dollars.
National Grid has turned over data needed to assess its property, but only gives that information to the state Office of Real Property Services, which determines it assessment. The state agency then sends the proposed assessment to each municipality, which has 20 days to challenge it or accept it.
“We wanted data to know if we wanted to challenge,” Van Norden said. “We wanted to make sure the number ORPS gave us was a fair value.”
ORPS refused to hand over the data, a decision supported Thursday by the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court. In the decision, the court said National Grid had a right to secrecy because the data could be used by its competitors.
“There can be little doubt that this data, as described by the record, has significant commercial value not only to the utility, but to potential competitors as well,” the decision read. “Its disclosure would almost assuredly complicate, if not compromise, Niagara Mohawk’s competitive position.”
Van Norden said he immediately started work on an appeal. He argues that the city can’t use the data to compete with National Grid because the city isn’t in the electricity business. Therefore, he said, the competition argument is irrelevant.
And other power companies couldn't use the Freedom of Information Law to request copies of the data from the city, Van Norden said, because those requests could be denied under the same competition argument that ORPS used to deny the city.
“The appeal says, ‘Excuse me, we’re government,’” Van Norden said. “I am a bit surprised by the decision.”
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