AUBURN — A tie vote by the DeKalb County Council to grant an abatement to Auburn Renewables for its solar farm project on C.R. 19 could possibly deter future solar development in DeKalb County.
With the 86-acre project underway and almost complete, the decision on Jan. 11 leaves Auburn Renewables no other option but to continue the project.
At the time of its approval by the city of Auburn in 2021, Auburn Renewables filed its paperwork with the county for a 10-year tax abatement on personal property. It was at that point in July 2021 the DeKalb County Commissioners and the DeKalb County Council asked Auburn Renewables for some leeway on voting on the abatement to give the county an opportunity to develop a solar ordinance for the county.
In November, the council approved the county’s solar ordinance, setting up a vote on Auburn Renewables’ 10-year tax abatement for Jan. 11 — some seven months after it was originally presented to the council.
Auburn Renewables originally gained permission for the development from the city of Auburn because it sits within the city’s Extra Territorial District. The city, however, couldn’t grant the tax abatement, because the land technically sits outside the city limits.
Council President Rick Ring addressed concerns that the project is nearly complete before the vote on the abatement was taken during Jan. 11’s meeting.
“At the beginning, they came to us before the installation was started,” Ring said. “We kept asking Auburn Renewables to delay the tax abatement so we could work on the solar ordinance. That is on us, not them. They have been very accommodating to us. We want Auburn Renewables to invest in other business here.”
After nearly an hour of conversation, Ring asked for a vote from the council, which came back in a tie as council member Amy Prosser was out of town on business and could only listen in to Tuesday’s discussion. Upon taking the vote, the motion to approve the tax abatement ended in a tie, with council members William VanWye, Eldonna King and David Yarde casting “no” votes.
The tie allows the issue to be brought up for a vote a second time during the Feb. 8 council meeting.
In a letter to the editor sent to The Star by Prosser — which was published Jan. 11 — she said she would be voting “no” on the issue. In her letter, she said she believes that instead of abating taxes for new companies, the county should look at lower taxes for all companies.
That same issue was echoed by other council members in their “no” votes. The county’s current assessed tax rate is 0.41%.
Another issue raised by those voting against the issue was the lack of new employment it would bring to the county as Auburn Renewables was only looking to hire one employee to man the installation.
Councilman David Yarde argued that with only one new employee, it didn’t fit with the spirit of the county’s previous tax abatements. One of the guiding factors in awarding tax abatements in the county is the amount of new jobs which will be created by a project.
That argument was addressed in the county’s solar ordinance as it stipulates developers and the county must agree to an economic development agreement to go alongside the abatement.
The county would have received $245,475 in three equal payments or $736,425 to make up for the lack of new employment with the solar field. That number is 45% of the total tax revenue — $544,500 — Auburn Renewables would have saved over the 10 years of the abatement.
The proposed abatement is 100% for the first year on personal property. After the first year, the county would receive 10% of the new taxes generated and then an additional 10% each year until the abatement is complete. At that point, Auburn Renewables would pay 100% of the assessed value of the land.
During his presentation, Rudi Eidam, an agent for the Sweitzer Family Office, representing Auburn Renewables, asked the council not to solely look at the project as a tax loss.
“The tax money we will pay is money the county would not have received,” he said. “Look at it as a positive way to spur future development in DeKalb County.”
County commissioner Mike Watson agreed with that statement as he echoed nearly the same thing during his presentation to open the conversation.
Watson said it was his belief that the decision, which was made Jan. 11, will send a message to other potential developers that might want to locate in DeKalb County and existing businesses that are looking to expand.
“The concept that other taxpayers are subsidizing the project is simply incorrect,” Watson said. “Tax abatements, whether you like them or not — I am not a fan — are reality. If you want a different situation, that is up to the legislature. As long as that is part of the tool box for economic development, that is something we have to take advantage of.
“Every major employer in DeKalb County has taken advantage of tax abatements. As long as that is a fact of life, our neighboring counties are happy to use that to attract business to their county. We need to be cognizant of those messages we send to potential businesses that are looking to come to DeKalb County.”
In discussing the implications of a “no” vote, council President Ring said he doesn’t want to discourage other green energy developments from choosing DeKalb County in the future.
“I don’t want to discourage these companies from locating here because it will bring in tax dollars. It will just bring them in slower than we are accustomed too,” he said.