The battle with Sunoco over Eagle Point is over.
West Deptford’s township committee voted along party lines, 3-1, with one abstention, Thursday night to approve a $15 million settlement with the oil company over eight years’ worth of property tax appeals.
“We knew it was coming,” said Mayor Ray Chintall. “It's one of the toughest decisions a governmental official can make.”
The deal ends Sunoco’s appeals dating back to 2004 on the 1,180-acre Eagle Point refinery complex. The refinery itself, which will be dismantled over the next several years, shut down for good two years ago, and the company has said it plans to turn the complex into a terminal facility.
“We are pleased we could come to agreement on this important matter and look forward to a future of development and growth at the Eagle Point terminal,” said Sunoco CEO Brian MacDonald in a statement released late Thursday night.
In the same release, Sunoco officials said the $15 million settlement would be applied to a larger environmental fund, which would go toward cleanup at the company’s sites, including Eagle Point.
While a major step in the process, the committee’s approval of the settlement isn’t the final one. Part of the moves Thursday night was an application to the state’s Local Finance Board (LFB), which has to approve the $15 million refunding bond that would go to paying off the settlement.
That can’t happen until April 11 at the earliest, based on the LFB’s 2012 meeting schedule.
After being OK'd by the LFB, a final approval of the refunding bond ordinance would have to be carried by at least a 4-1 supermajority, meaning one of the two Democrats on the committee would have to shift from a “no” vote to issue the bond.
The agreement means taxpayers will have to foot the bill for the settlement, which is split between the township and county, as well as a big hit to West Deptford’s ratable base from a new assessment for Eagle Point.
The 1,180-acre complex is assessed at $153.5 million for 2012, down about $100 million from last year’s assessment.
“It’s not the happiest time that we have to place a burden like this on the township’s residents,” Chintall said. “I’m a taxpayer, too…I take that into consideration.”
It didn’t take long for the detractors to fire back at West Deptford’s committee over the settlement.
Gloucester County Freeholder Director Robert Damminger slammed the deal in a prepared statement released moments after the vote, saying the terms of the deal were bad for residents of both West Deptford and the county.
“I am deeply disappointed that the mayor of West Deptford and the new majority have chosen to settle with Sunoco and let them off the hook, while the hard-working taxpayers of Gloucester County will get stuck with the tax bill,” Damminger said. “This is nothing more than corporate welfare for an oil company that has all but abandoned Gloucester County.”
Damminger said the township committee gave up too easily, rather than take the case to court.
“It is shameful that West Deptford’s new leadership, who has only held office for two months, would choose to hastily reach this decision to settle,” he said.
Given the potential affect on the county’s budget, and the fact that the county cannot bond to pay off its share of the property tax settlement, Damminger said the county will pursue any available appeals to the settlement.
Residents slammed the decision, as well.
Terry Holovachuk called out Chintall and Cianfarini on their campaign pledge to put any new debt out to a public vote.
“When are we going to get a referendum?” she asked. “That’s what you said was going to happen.”
Chintall deflected that, saying there hadn’t yet been time to consider that campaign proposal.
“It hasn’t been addressed yet,” Chintall said. “It’s been 60 days.”
They also took flak from Eric Agren, who questioned the committee’s dedication to transparency, versus the closed-door nature of the settlement agreement, which came out of three-hour closed session.
“I think it’s unfair, I really do,” Agren said.
But whether the township went to court or opted, as they did, to settle, Chintall said the dispute had to be resolved somehow.
“There’s a day of reckoning some time,” he said.