GREAT SACANDAGA LAKE -- Property owners around the Great Sacandaga Lake had a message for the Hudson River Black River Regulating District’s Board of Directors Tuesday: Don't include them as beneficiaries of the reservoir system.
Peter Van Avery, along with members of the Sacandaga Protection Committee, were among approximately 200 people who attended the regulating district's board meeting Tuesday. Van Avery gave a speech pushing back against an effort to add more beneficiaries to the regulating district's revenue stream as a result of new state legislation.
"[A recently passed bill" requires the regulating district 'to take a fresh look at the localities that are actually benefiting from the (lake’s) operations' and figure out how to bill them," Van Avery said. "Did Legislators actually read the bill before they voted? I’ll bet if you asked a Legislator from the Bronx, say, to locate the lake on a map, his brain would explode."
The legislation was sponsored by Assemblyman John McDonald, D-Cohoes, and State Sen. Kathleen A. Marchione, R-Halfmoon, and would, if signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, require the district to conduct a new "comprehensive study" to determine all of the beneficiaries of the reservoir system the district controls.
As of the regulating district's three-year 2019-2021 operating budget, five counties -- Warren ($242,878), Washington ($138,220), Saratoga ($1.03 million), Rensselaer ($542,379) and Albany ($1.03 million) -- pay a combined $3 million annually for the the flood control benefits provided by the district.
That apportionment was contested by those counties in a court battle that was settled in 2013, but the settlement agreement expires this year.
"This was never meant to be a permanent solution, and addressing the inequity is long overdue," states the bill, which was passed by both houses at the end of the most recent legislative session. "Since the district's inception, the board was tasked with examining any and all avenues to sustain district operations; however, the result has led to a historically limited financial impact on the downstream jurisdictions. Inasmuch as the original intent was to prevent downstream flooding, the reality is that the creation and continued operations of the district has created opportunity and benefit for many entities both private and public outside of the five counties currently carrying the financial burden."
The legislation -- it was unclear as of Tuesday when it would reach Cuomo's desk -- also complains that the five counties paying for the flood control have no representation on the regulating district board. The bill does not explain how a "beneficiary" should be defined, but it implies it should include more than just the flood control benefits provided by the artificial lake created behind the Conklingville Dam.
"There is a long and complicated history regarding the apportionment of costs; however, it is time for the District to take a fresh look at the localities that are actually benefiting from their operations, how it can operate in a more efficient manner, and how it can derive the necessary revenue for infrastructure upgrades and improvements," states the legislation.
In addition to the flood control apportionment paid by the counties, HRBRRD also has what it calls "pre-assessment" income: its hydroelectric agreement with Brookfield Renewable Power for $1.4 million per year, which increases 3 percent annually; $412,000 in permit fees charged to landowners along the state-owned shoreline of the Great Sacandaga Lake (a man-made reservoir created by the regulating district's Conklingville Dam), and $471,000 in Section 10F fees charged for maintenance of the dam system to downstream hydroelectric plants that benefit from the steady flow of water made possible by the reservoirs.
The bill points out that "the smallest source of revenue for the district comes from Sacandaga Lake Access Permits."
Van Avery said he believes the bill is a transparent attempt by the counties paying the flood control bill to shift some of the costs onto Fulton County property owners. He said the lake access permit system was only meant to pay for its own costs, and the permits to the actual beachfront property around the state, owned by New York state, can be revoked at any time.
"The lake’s 4,700 access permit holders are not the only targets of the legislation. Also in the bill’s sights are the folks living in surrounding localities, like Northville, Mayfield and Edinburg," he said. "Two-thirds of the lake’s water surface falls within Fulton County. So the financial hit would be hardest on one of the poorest counties in the state. I also wonder how many Legislators are aware that one-third of the lake’s water surface falls in Saratoga County, which already pays an assessment as a downstream “beneficiary.” Will its citizens now be double-billed?"
The bill would require HRBRRD to conduct a new study, establish "a standard methodology for the determination of any future apportionment" and submit a report to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2020.
Richard J. Ferrara, the regulating district's chief fiscal officer, said the last time HRBRRD conducted a benefits study of this kind was in 2003 -- at a cost of about $68,000. At that time, the district was receiving about 98 percent of its revenue from downstate hydroelectric plants, payments that continued until a federal court ruled in 2008 that those plants were being overcharged. That court ruling sparked the change to relying on downstream counties for a much larger share of the district's operating costs.
During the HRBRRD board meeting Tuesday, its chairman Mark Finkle stated the board does not believe Fulton County property owners receive a flood control benefit.
What other "benefits" might be considered in this next study remains to be seen, but Ferrara said it may be that HRBRRD is able to do the study "in-house," based on existing data rather than hiring a consulting firm. No mandate for changing the apportionment system is included in the bill, which passed overwhelmingly in both houses of the Legislature.