Sunoco, El Paso Settlements on the Line Thursday Night
The West Deptford committee will hold a final vote on $33 million in bonds to fund tax settlements on the Eagle Point refinery complex.
Nearly six months after a party-line vote set in motion deals to settle more than two decades’ worth of disputed property taxes on the Eagle Point refinery complex, D-Day is a little more than 48 hours away.
Just two days remain until the West Deptford township committee takes up the public hearing and final vote on a $33 million bond ordinance to fund deals with Sunoco and El Paso that would bring to a close the long battle over the sprawling property’s value.
That is, if a fourth vote can be found.
While the 3-2 Republican majority on the township committee was enough to shepherd the settlements from their initial approval to a final OK from the state, that simple majority isn’t enough to push through the bond ordinance.
For that, the township committee needs at least a supermajority, if not a unanimous vote.
For Mayor Ray Chintall, who has said the settlement deals weigh on him every day, there’s hope, even at this late stage in the game. Chintall knows it hinges on bringing over at least one of the Democrats on township committee, and said he’s had some discussions with the two in the run up to the final vote.
“I’m optimistic—I’ve said that before,” he said Tuesday. “Hopefully we can not only get the fourth vote, but the fifth.”
It may be easier said than done, however.
Democrats Denice DiCarlo and Donna Szymborski have been opposed since the beginning—not on the idea of settling, but on the deals themselves, which DiCarlo has said give too much to the oil companies.
“I’m not opposed to settling, I just want to settle for the right amount,” DiCarlo said.
To that end, she’s made a late push to continue the negotiations, even as the final vote looms, and said there had been progress in at least part of the deals.
“The Sunoco piece is going in the right direction,” she said after a recent session with that company’s representatives. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Should the settlements fall apart at the last minute, a court date waits, as the Republicans have repeatedly pointed out as an argument for approving the two deals.
That way, Chintall said, the township can assert some control over the situation, rather than leaving it at the mercy of a judge’s decision. Settling gives the township more of a say in the terms of the deal, and Chintall pointed out the current structure staves off a major tax hike—though, as Democrats have said in their criticism, the longer term of the payments means around $3 million extra in interest payments over the life of the bonds.
But given the choice between the settlements and a likely middle-of-the-road estimate of around a $54 million decision against the township from a court decision, Chintall said the decision should be clear.
“The middle isn’t the best for West Deptford,” he said.
The settlement with Sunoco would also fix the value of Eagle Point at $100 million, two-thirds of its current value, through the end of 2013, though the company could challenge it after that—roughly the same time as the refinery’s demolition should be complete.
But with the stability the settlements offer and a push for new ratables—plus a healthy bump from the West Deptford Energy Station, which will ramp up its Payment in Lieu of Taxes program in the coming years—could help offset the loss in value, Chintall said.
The challenge is to find new ways to expand the tax base, he said.
“I don’t think any one of us has taken it lightly,” Chintall said of considering the settlements. “We’ve done our homework.”