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NYPA’s series of broken promises

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Negotiations between the St. Lawrence Local Government Task Force and the New York Power Authority for a 10-year review of the 2003 St. Lawrence-FDR power dam relicensing settlement appear to be off to a rough start.

We learned Friday that NYPA has told the task force that it is wrong to think that we got shortchanged in the relicensing. NYPA officials have told the task force that its $115 million St. Lawrence settlement is on par with a $973 million settlement it reached with the city of Buffalo and Erie and Niagara counties for a 50-year license to operate the Niagara power dam in Lewiston based on something NYPA calls “net present value.”

NYPA fabricated some complicated mathematical formula that took into account assumptions that really aren’t true to reach that conclusion, including that Niagara generates eight times the amount of power the Massena dam does. From the documentation I’ve seen, it appears that Niagara’s power generation isn’t even twice what the Massena dam produces. NYPA in its calculation also ignored the fact that the Massena project encompasses 10 times the acreage the Niagara dam does.

I applaud NYPA for its creative math skills, but it’s insulting for the Power Authority to think we’re going to respond to that assertion with anything other than a good, hard belly laugh.

That’s not surprising, though. The Power Authority has a pretty consistent track record for treating us like a bunch of stupid bumpkins. The agonizing negotiations leading up to the 2003 settlement started with the Power Authority telling our communities they didn’t owe us anything for confiscating tens of thousands of acres of land from our shores, submerging a lot of those acres and taking the rest off the tax rolls permanently, not to mention the environmental impact of the dam on the St. Lawrence River.

What NYPA gave us doesn’t even count as a pittance, especially when you consider that it gave Western New York communities close to $1 billion. On top of that, its power generation has been so lucrative that it has transferred $1.16 billion to the state’s coffers over the last decade.

Obviously inadequate funding attached to the 2003 settlement aside, the agreement included things the Power Authority couldn’t live up to, and knew full well it couldn’t live up to. The promise to return former project lands to adjacent land owners, for instance, must have raised a red flag with at least one member of the small army of attorneys on NYPA’s payroll. Constitutional law 101: A government or government agency can’t dispose of a public asset for anything less than fair market value. In other words, the state can’t just take something it owns - something the public owns - and give it to somebody for nothing.

Anybody with even a rudimentary understanding of municipal law knows that. NYPA surely knew that.

The Power Authority pledged again to deliver something that it knew couldn’t happen when it promised the St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency 20 megawatts of low-cost power to help businesses. NYPA told the agency that it could sell on the open market any power not being used by businesses and spend the proceeds as the agency saw fit. That falls outside the scope of what NYPA is allowed to do under state law.

NYPA officials must have known they couldn’t do that without special legislation allowing it, because they had to get special legislation to accomplish the same thing for an agency in Western New York. But they still made that promise and broke it without blinking an eye.

A pattern of behavior is evident. NYPA likes to say it is a good neighbor to its host communities, but its actions show how little it really cares about the north country.

The river communities and county are going to have to come out swinging and keep swinging to get the compensation we should have gotten in the first place. I predict a long, brutal, bloody fight.

And they can’t win on their own. Our elected officials at all levels of government need to get involved. If the task force hasn’t already reached out to U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, they need to now. They need to keep reinforcing their position with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who is up for re-election and has a real opportunity to win back north country voters by twisting NYPA’s arm to do right by or communities. Our elected officials need to hold NYPA to its promises.

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