Commissioners approve reinvestment zone as discussions with solar developer continue

Editor: Shannon Cottongame

August 18, 2021

The Hill County Commissioners Court continued discussions about a possible tax abatement for a solar project in the county during a meeting held last week.

The court approved the creation of a reinvestment zone for 5,607 acres of land near Itasca and Milford, which is a necessary step that must be completed before commissioners can vote on a tax abatement agreement for the company.

A representative of Core Solar of Austin said that the land in the reinvestment zone contains more acreage than is currently being leased, but the designation would allow flexibility in the design and the ability to enter into future agreements if the project is expanded.

The company plans to begin construction in the first part of 2023, with the operation going online during the first half of 2024. The proposed capital investment by the company is over $448 million, with an estimated minimum taxable value of $340 million.

Representatives from Core Solar stressed that the company prides itself on having good relationships with landowners and said that they do not set up projects without the intention of developing them.

During the public hearing, one neighboring landowner asked about the impacts to wildlife, stating that he believes wildlife will leave the area during construction and not return.

A company representative said that the solar panels sit about four-and-a-half feet off the ground, and the grassland provides habitat for animals. He said that the areas do repopulate, and there are regulations regarding when construction can take place based on wildlife activity.

County Judge Justin Lewis said that he understands the opinions of those who are against the project. “I wouldn’t want it next door to me either, but if it’s coming, it’s going to be on my doorstep one day too,” the judge said.

Lewis said that the people who own the land ultimately have the right to make the decisions. Considering the options as the county grows and land sells, Lewis said that for him, it comes down to what he would rather see developed.

“Looking at what it’s going to be, it will return to nature 30 years from now and it will be a nice piece of land without a subdivision sitting on top of it,” Lewis said. “I’m afraid I can’t say that about much of the rest of the county.”

Commissioner Andy Montgomery said that the projects create a lot of money to better the area without raising taxes on residents. “I like the revenue it creates for our county without taking it out of our taxpayers’ pockets,” he said.

If the county chooses to offer a partial tax abatement to the company, it will not apply to the FM lateral tax, which the county never negotiates. This means that the project will immediately put the full amount of tax revenue into the county’s road and bridge fund.

Commissioners also approved the proposed form of a tax abatement agreement, but the actual agreement will not be voted on until September 28 to give the public time to review and comment on the proposal. “We’re here to listen to what you have to say,” Lewis said.

In another agenda item related to a solar project, the court approved a road repair agreement with BT Pitts Dudik Solar, LLC. The company requested to upgrade approximately 2,000 feet of HCR 3309 leading to the site at its own expense. The agreement will allow the work to move forward.

Dr. Donald Kelm made a presentation to the court about the activities of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service over the past year and introduced a new Hill County Extension agent.

Kelm said that Rachel Esquivel, a Hill County native, Texas A&M graduate and former teacher at Frost ISD, has been selected to serve as the Family and Community Health agent with an expected start date of September 1.

He also provided commissioners with his annual report about Extension activities. Highlights included all of the work the agency did over the past year to coordinate pandemic assistance. Extension agents provided contact tracing, delivered personal protective equipment and educated officials and school districts about available CARES Act funds.

Dr. Kelm also praised Hill County’s Extension agents and said that they have created one of the strongest programs in the district.

The court wrapped up lengthy discussions about the county’s employee health insurance for the next year after receiving good news from Anco Insurance, which negotiated on behalf of the county after initial estimates indicated that the county’s plan would go up over 30 percent in the coming year.

After reviewing the short list of available offers, commissioners approved an Aetna plan that offers more benefits than the county’s current plan at approximately a 4 percent savings over the current price. Commissioner Montgomery voted against the plan, citing concerns about how it would impact those with dependents compared to other plans.

The county’s lease for the Forrest Drive lake access area on Lake Whitney was renewed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It was determined that another lease that was up for renewal, the Hackberry Creek boat ramp, was not in use and did not need to be renewed.

An update to the county’s policy on paid quarantine leave for first responders exposed to infectious diseases on the job was approved by the court. The change was made this legislative session and states that first responders will receive full pay and benefits while they are quarantined due to a possible or known exposure to COVID-19 or any infectious disease at work.

A Holt/Caterpillar credit agreement was approved for Precinct 1. Commissioner Montgomery said that he will be back before the court with agreements for consideration, but the action will allow him to apply for leases on two Caterpillar motorgraders to replace three he currently has. The commissioner said that the move will save taxpayers about $2,200 a month.

In other action, the court observed and recorded the Child Protective Services Board treasurer’s report, noting that the board continues to do an excellent job of managing its funds and serving children; approved the annual grant application for a juvenile truancy officer to work with school districts in the county; and approved an interlocal agreement with the Heart of Texas Council of Governments (HOTCOG) that provides resources for the county’s 9-1-1 system.

Judge Lewis also commented on the current state of COVID-19 cases in the county, noting that the governor has called for out-of-state resources, elective surgeries have been canceled and there were no available ICU beds in the area as of the meeting date.

He said that he was aware of two deaths the previous week, two over the weekend and learned of another the morning of the meeting. “This is a serious, serious issue,” he said.

He once again encouraged vaccination as the way out of the pandemic. “If you have a problem with vaccines, don’t read Facebook. Talk to your doctor,” he said. “Don’t talk to your friends. Talk to your doctor.”

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