Commissioners court vote kills solar farm tax abatement

Steve Nash
Brownwood Bulletin
Owen Fuqua speaks during a public hearing held by the Brown County Commissioners Court Monday in the Adams Street Community Center.

A months-long debate over a tax abatement for the IP Radian solar farm project came to a swift end Monday when commissioners court members declined to create a reinvestment zone — a necessary step before granting an abatement.

The court took the 3-2 vote against creating a reinvestment zone following a public hearing in the Adams Street Community Center.

Brown County Judge Paul Lilly, Precinct 1 Commissioner Gary Worley and Precinct 4 Commissioner Larry Traweek voted against, and Precinct 2 Commissioner Joel Kelton and Precinct 3 Commissioner Wayne Shaw voted in favor.

Without a reinvestment zone, the was no need for any action on the next agenda item — a vote on granting the abatement, Lilly said.

With that announcement, most of the audience began leaving the community center. Lilly said earlier the commissioners court had opted to have Monday’s meeting in the community center because of an anticipated large turnout.

"We are elected to serve Brown County, and I thought that's what we did," Worley said of the vote.

California-based Intersect Power sought a seven-year tax abatement for 55 percent of its property taxes to build a solar farm on 2,500 acres within the Brookesmith school district. Over the 35-year life of the project, the company would pay $16.2 million in property taxes to the Brookesmith school district and $9.2 million to the county, Intersect has said.

Intersect had said it would be difficult for the company to move ahead with the solar farm project without a tax abatement agreement. The abatement was requested "to attract new or expanding businesses in order to compete with other counties in Texas, or other states, which may have similar incentives," Intersect said.

Lilly said after the meeting he was “floored” at the court’s vote that ended the tax abatement question.

“I thought it was going to go the other direction,” Lilly said.

With the failed voted, it is unclear what will happen with the IP Radian project.

“Right now I’m going to go home, talk to my investment team and to the company and figure out our next steps,” Intersect Power representative Christian Fiene said after the meeting.

“So, no definitive action right now. It’s unfortunate. We’re hoping to partner with the county. We’re hoping to have their support.”

Dale Cummings, also an Intersect Power representative, said a reinvestment zone is “simply a legally defined area of land, where the improvements that are eligible for abatements have to be inside that defined area of land.

“You can’t do a tax abatement agreement without a reinvestment zone. Brookesmith ISD created a reinvestment zone for their incentive, but the county has to do a reinvestment zone if they want to offer tax abatement.”

During the public hearing, four speakers urged commissioners to vote against a tax abatement, saying they’re not against solar power but against abatements.

Ken Adams had a different view. “The majority of people who oppose this and own land, have abatements with their ag exemption,” Adams said. 

Anyone who takes ag or any other abatements “shouldn't be saying anything bad against this one,” Adams said.

Brookesmith school superintendent Steve Mickelson said small districts “don’t get opportunities like this very often.”

After the meeting, Lilly said he does understand that the Brookesmith school district could use the money it would receive in tax revenue from a solar project.

“Hopefully it will still come,” Lilly said “I believe (IP Radian) is still going to build it regardless. Imagine what the benefits will be if they build it and pay the regular tax. I’ve seen some work that they’ve already started out there, so I believe they’re going to do something, even if they scale it back.

“I want to reiterate, I don’t believe anybody on the court is against solar. If a business cannot stand on its own and claims that they cannot turn a profit without a government subsidy …  if your business can’t turn a profit without tax abatements from the government, then you need to re-evaluate your business plan.”

Lilly said landowners have a right to do as they choose with their property. “But just don’t ask the government to subsidize it,” Lilly said.

An ag exemption “is not the same as a tax abatement for a multi-million-dollar, if not billion-dollar company,” Lilly said. “That’s apples and oranges.”