Twenty-four years’ worth of battles over the value of the Eagle Point refinery ended with a single phone call Thursday evening.
An hour and a half before the West Deptford township committee meeting was scheduled to begin, Committeewoman Denice DiCarlo got the call she had been waiting for:
Sunoco officials were making some late concessions to the township, agreeing to an $800,000 cut from their property tax refund.
It was the movement she’d wanted, and, along with a $200,000 concession from El Paso, the refinery’s former owners, was enough to shift DiCarlo from a no vote to a yes, in what became a unanimous vote to seal the deal by approving a bond ordinance to borrow up to $33 million to pay off the two companies and end the longstanding property tax disputes.
“It was an absolute waiting game,” DiCarlo said. “Each side had to give a little bit.”
That call brought an end to six months’ worth of discussions on the settlements, and came after a whirlwind two weeks of bipartisan negotiations, spearheaded by Mayor Ray Chintall and DiCarlo, as the township committee worked to reduce what had been a total of $32.4 million in settlement agreements with the two oil companies.
“We were always constantly talking,” Chintall said. “We never stopped.”
It reached a height over the past two days, as both sides traded Fourth of July fireworks for the back-and-forth of negotiations.
And much of the talks took place directly between the township committee and Sunoco officials, rather than through both parties’ attorneys, which both Chintall and DiCarlo said was important in pushing the late negotiations.
“I’d rather talk to the people,” Chintall said.
The finalized settlement agreements touched off a ripple effect—as part of the agreement, Sunoco agreed to waive the 5 percent interest it would’ve been due on the tax overpayments, saving thousands of dollars, and $1.5 million budgeted by the township for tax appeals should be cut drastically.
“I know we can cut at least $1 million,” township administrator Eric Campo said of the tax appeals line item, which translates to 4¢ per $100 of assessed value.
That would take the projected tax rate increase in this year’s yet-to-be-approved budget down to 4.5¢ per $100 of assessed value. The 20-year bonds to pay out the settlements will add to the budget down the line, but not this year, according to a plan laid out by Committeeman Sam Cianfarini.
The deals also come with another cost—instead of a $100 million assessment agreed to earlier, Sunoco is getting a $98.5 million assessment on the property, which will translate into a slightly lower tax bill than the $2.55 million originally guaranteed by the settlement, which locks in the value of Eagle Point through the end of 2013.
The decision to give the final sign-off on the settlement was met with general applause from a capacity crowd at the municipal building, though there were still some partisan sentiments in the wake of the vote—Democrats voiced their approval for DiCarlo’s work on the deal, while Republicans heaped praise on Chintall and Cianfarini.
Ernest Kraus singled out Cianfarini for credit, praising the committeeman for “lighting the fire to get this done.”
Given the option of going to a courtroom fight over the disputes, Kraus noted decisions elsewhere seem to favor industry over local governments almost universally.
“Every township that has gone into court…has lost, and lost big time,” he said.
But Joe Holovachuk, treasurer for the West Deptford Democratic Party, applauded DiCarlo for standing her ground against the oil companies until they agreed to concessions.
“We saved $1 million,” Holovachuk said.
Others raised concerns over the unknowns associated with the appeals, which could’ve added $90 million in debt in a doomsday scenario that both sides had said was unlikely, but possible.
“I carry two credit cards…and that’s about all the debt I can handle,” Terry Baker said. “I’d really like us to rid ourselves of this—to solve this problem and move on.”
There were a handful of detractors, though. At least one resident questioned why the committee would take 24 years’ worth of disputes and compress a decision into six months.
“I don’t understand the urgency,” Don Suchora said. “We could’ve done a better job.”
With the settlements done, the township committee members said they have hope Sunoco will reinvest in the property, which is seeing the death of the refinery in a long-term demolition project.
But with the oil company signing a deal with the Carlyle Group to keep its Philadelphia refinery open, and also working with Marcus Hook, PA, officials on the next life for its former Marcus Hook refinery, DiCarlo said there’s reason to think Eagle Point can continue to be a valuable asset.
“There is a future here,” she said.