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The Moses-Saunders power dam near Massena. Photo: New York Power Authority
The Moses-Saunders power dam near Massena. Photo: New York Power Authority

St. Lawrence County towns seek more compensation from NYPA

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Ever since the giant hydropower dam was erected across the St. Lawrence River 55 years ago, the towns that lost part of their riverfront have felt short-changed.

And even though the state agency that runs the dam has given the towns millions of dollars, those towns say they deserve more.

Negotiations have gone on for decades. The latest chapter ended last week when talks between the towns and the New York Power Authority broke down.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

David Sommerstein joins Martha Foley to explain what happened and why.

Martha Foley: David, quick primer – remind us what happened when the power dam was built on the St. Lawrence near Massena.

David Sommerstein: I'll take you back to the late 1950s. The river rises behind the dam. Thousands of acres of land are flooded. Houses are actually moved to higher ground. On the Canadian side, several whole villages disappeared underwater.

Most relevant to this story, the New York Power Authority – NYPA - takes ownership of several dozen miles of shoreline, from just downriver from Ogdensburg to Massena.

So think about that, compared to the Thousand Islands, say. No homes right along the shoreline, no restaurants, no hotels. NYPA owns the shoreline. Anything had to be built in some cases hundreds of feet from the river. NYPA also took control of several islands on the river. Joseph Gray is the supervisor of the town of Massena. He says NYPA stymied growth in the region.

"The islands are off-limits," Gray says. "The shoreline can’t be used for development. We can’t collect any property tax revenue. We have lost since the 1950s tens of millions of dollars in property tax revenue because NYPA’s tax exempt."

MF: NYPA has done a lot along the river to give back. It’s built docks and campgrounds and parks. And since 2002, NYPA’s been paying $2 million a year to St. Lawrence County and the three towns still affected: Waddington, Louisville, and Massena.

Why do the towns want more and why now?

DS: Because NYPA also owns a power dam in Niagara Falls and it’s giving towns and cities there, including the city of Buffalo, a deal worth seven times more money. And people like Joseph Gray say that’s not fair, even though the Buffalo-Niagara region has a much larger population.

The fine print in the St. Lawrence River deal struck in 2002 allows a renegotiation in ten years, which is now, more or less.

So the two sides have been talking for months. But Joseph Gray’s group of towns contends that at the last meeting a week ago, NYPA drew a line in the sand. As Gray put it,  "The final part of the discussion was NYPA saying, ‘This is our proposal. We’re not interested in a counterproposal. We reject your proposals. And we consider the review closed.'"

NYPA tells a very different story. It issued a statement, saying it had proposed “significant additional benefits” for the river towns, but that it broke off talks because the towns wanted more money for their general funds, something NYPA says it is barred from doing.

Joseph Gray agrees that money is the sticking point. But he says the towns were asking for money that could be allocated for specific projects, like putting solar panels on town halls and schools.

But NYPA also pointed out that it’s already offered to reduce electricity costs for businesses and dairy farms. It’s hired an economic development consultant for the communities. And it helped push a new law, passed last week, creating a new $2 million North Country economic development fund.

MF: That sounds like something, right? But clearly not enough for the river towns.

DS: Correct. Joseph Gray said that fund’s been in the works already for years. And he says it does come down to money. He says there’s “a double standard” between what happened in western New York and what’s happened here. Meanwhile, NYPA says in its statement that it’s still open to continuing conversations with the towns.

MF: So not the end of that.

One more pieces of news broke last week about this same chunk of riverfront property, State comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released an audit that found NYPA was leasing some of that shoreline it owns for less than fair market value. The audit specifically mentioned the Massena County Club and the St. Lawrence University boathouse. Tells us more about that.

DS: The audit says that NYPA was leasing the land for less than 10% of fair market value, which NYPA itself reported as a good standard. The audit said if the leases went up to that 10% level, NYPA would collect another $214,000.

Officials across St. Lawrence County cried foul when this came out, arguing these agreements have been in place since the power dam was first built, and that they’re part of compensation package agreed to decades ago.

I put that to Comptroller DiNapoli. DiNapoli said he is not saying the leases are in and of themselves wrong. What he says he’s trying to do is to get all of New York’s authorities—long considered the murky underbelly of state government—to shape up.

DiNapolii says "We’re not saying they shouldn’t do this. We’re saying do it right. Follow the procedures that are outlined in this era where we’re all looking for more transparency and more accountability from public authorities."

MF: OK, there you have it! Thanks, David.

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