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Village of Cambridge will dip into reserves to pay attorneys, expert witnesses in solar farm fight

The Cambridge Village Board voted 6-1 on Aug. 24 to spend up to an additional $60,000 for attorneys and expert witnesses as it approaches a tentative November date to present its case to the PSC, as an intervenor

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As the state review moves forward for a proposed utility-scale solar farm west of Cambridge, the village has authorized more spending for legal guidance and expert witnesses.

The village has filed as an intervenor in the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s review of the Koshkonong Solar Energy Center, a 300-megawatt solar farm and 165 megawatt battery storage facility proposed to be developed by Invenergy, LLC of Chicago, in the towns of Deerfield and Christiana.

The Cambridge Village Board voted 6-1 on Aug. 24 to spend up to an additional $60,000 for attorneys and expert witnesses as it approaches a tentative November date to present its case to the PSC, as an intervenor.

Village Board member Kris Breunig was the sole dissenter.

The Public Service Commission expects to make a decision in early 2022 on Invenergy’s application for a certificate of public convenience and necessity, that would allow the project to go forward.

In April, the village board approved spending up to $5,000 for legal counsel related to the solar farm. Village Administrator Lisa Moen said that has now mostly been spent.

Wyatt Rose, chair of the village’s Energy Subcommittee that was formed to respond to the solar farm, said the additional $60,000 is key to presenting a strong case that the project would harm Cambridge into the future.

Village officials have argued that the solar farm would limit Cambridge’s growth to the west, along U.S. Highway 12-18. Into the future, that would make the community more expensive than envisioned to live in and do business in because the cost of its municipal services couldn’t be spread over as many ratepayers and taxpayers, officials have said.

In backing the spending of addition funds, that will be drawn from village financial reserves, “there is no other issue that is going to affect Cambridge more in the next 50 years, than this one,” Village President Mark McNally said.

“We are not against solar, we are just against what they proposed, this plan,” McNally continued. He called the additional $60,000 “a little powder” to pay people the village must hire to help make its case.

Village Board member Carla Galler characterized approval of the funds as “using legal fees to protect the village’s long-term interests.”

Rose said some of the information researched and presented by expert witnesses could be resued when the village has to update its long-term growth plan a couple of years from now.

Village fund balanceThe additional $60,000 is a hit, though, to village coffers.

Earlier in the meeting on Aug. 24, in an annual audit report of village finances, a representative Hawkins Ash CPAs, of Mequon, said that Cambridge is tipping quickly toward depleting its reserves.

Monica Hauser, of Hawkins Ash CPA, said in 2019 the village had in reserves what amounted to 27.5 percent of its general fund budget. That fell to 15.6 percent in 2020, she said.

The village “ate up about $103,000 in fund balance in 2020,” Hauser said.

Hauser said the village spent about $80,000 more than it had budgeted for in 2020, and had to dip into its reserves for that overrun. She said unexpected expenses related to COVID-19 and public safety inspections were a big part of that. In recent years, the village has also dealt with rising fire and EMS expenses and state revenue caps that limit how much it can increase it tax levy year over year.

Hauser also noted that “a big chuck of that was (tax incremental finance) payments,” given to business developers. “So when you budget, make sure you know what those payments are actually going to be,” she said.

Before the additional $60,000 is drawn from reserves for solar farm legal fees, that would leave the village reserves at about $135,000.

“A couple of years of that and you will have zero fund balance,” Hauser cautioned.

The village passed a referendum in April that allows it, beginning with the 2021 budget, to exceed the state revenue cap by $95,000 a year to cover its annual expenses. Village officials hope that will relieve some pressure on their annual budget and relieve some need to tap into reserves.

In other matters in Aug. 24, the village board:

• Heard from Nick Mass, of the Dancing Goat Distillery, who said it objects to the construction of a new bike connector route that runs near its facility, based on an inaccurate certified survey map. The board took no action; village officials said they would respond soon.

• Voted unanimously to grant Cambridge Deerfield Players Theater $4,396 from the village’s federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allotment. The village expects to receive a total of $166,000 in ARP funds that it has until 2024 to spend. Village Administrator Lisa Moen said the village has received about half of that. She said funding local non-profit groups like CD Players, that have been hit hard by the pandemic, is allowed under ARPA rules.

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