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Who should pay to operate Great Sacandage Reservoir and its massive dam? Photo: HRBRRD
Who should pay to operate Great Sacandage Reservoir and its massive dam? Photo: HRBRRD

North Country dam authority wins round in court

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A new ruling by a state Supreme Court could force five counties in the North Country and the Hudson Valley to pay millions of dollars a year to help fund dam operations in the southern Adirondacks. The decision found that it is reasonable for counties to be charged for the benefits they receive in the form of flood protection from dams located on Great Sacandaga and Indian Lake.

As Brian Mann reports, county leaders in the North Country say footing the bill for dam operations would add new pressure on taxpayers at a time when budgets are already tight.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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This is one of those stories that requires a little history.  Decades ago, flooding was a regular event along the upper Hudson River.  Cities like Albany and Glens Falls and Rensselaer flooded all the time.

Then dams were built in the southern Adirondacks, especially the big Congkingville Dam that created Great Sacandaga Reservoir in 1930. 

That helped control the spring surge that flowed every year from the Adironacks.

For decades, the dams’ operations were paid for by fees charged to hydro dam operators, big power companies that benefited from a more regular flow of water.

But Mike Clark, who heads the Hudson River Black River Regulating District, says that source of revenue was pinched off abruptly three years ago when the power companies won a big Federal lawsuit.

“It has been a struggle.  We have had difficult times paying school and property taxes.  Two years ago in May in the Hudson river area, particularly the field staff on the Sacandaga, there was a significant layoff.  We lost most of our staff here.  We are still accomplishing our mission, but it takes more work.”

The Regulating District is a state-run authority.  It asked the legislature for help in the form of direct funding, but lawmakers in Albany balked at the idea.

The Regulating District then sent a bill to downstream counties demanding that they pay roughly 4.5 million dollars a year for flood protection.

"Five downstream counties, Albany, Saratoga, Rensselaer, Washington and Warren are indeed beneficiaries of flood protection from Great Sacandaga Lake and are obligated to pay certain assessed costs," Clark said.

But at a time when county budgets are already strained – county leaders hated the idea of paying for flood protection that they’ve always received for free. 

"In Warren county on an annual basis, that's approximately $300,000," said Dan Stec head of the Warren County Board of Supervisors.

"To put that in perspective, that's almost 1% of our tax levy.  So that's half the tax cap that we're allowed to work with right there.  So it's a significant impact to our county government."

So this question has been fought over in court since 2010.  Can the regulating district charge people downstream for flood protection – and if so, how should they go about it?

Spencer Hellwig, county administrator in Saratoga County, says if the Regulating District wants to charge for those services, all downstream property owners should pay, not just counties.

"There's literally thousands of beneficiaries and the Regulating Authorities really need to do their due diligence and contact each property owner and levy their portion of the total," Hellwig said.

But in this latest decision, handed down May 10th the the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court rejected that argument.

The court found that it would be too complex and burdensome for the regulating district to identify all the property owners who might benefit from flood protection over thousands of square miles. 

The ruling found that the Regulating District’s approach, charging counties for flood services, is "neither irrational nor unreasonable.”

It’s still unclear whether counties will appeal.  But they did win one victory in this ruling. 

The court confirmed that before charging local governments for flood protection, the Regulating District first has to deduct any value that the state of New York receives from the dams and their operations.

"The only item that the court directed the Regulating District to correct is the New Yorkk state share of costs to be deducted prior to the counties being assessed," Clark said.  "Myself and my staff are working on that presently."

If this ruling stands, there is one other bit of positive budget news for at least some local taxpayers.  The Regulating District is required by state law to pay property taxes in several counties – but because of its budget woes, the authority has fallen millions of dollars into debt.

When new revenue begins to come in, Clark says those back taxes will be paid off as soon as possible.

"Job one is going to be to pay those past-due school and property taxes.  That would happen just as soon as we have money in our accounts."

During last year’s spring floods, there were concerns raised about safety at Congklingville Dam on the Great Sacandaga Reservoir.   But despite the regulating district’s budget woes, and staff cuts, Clark says inspections and maintenance have continued without interruption.

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