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Newly released records show Cayuga County agency getting $4 million for digester

After refusing to disclose financial information over a nearly six-month state Freedom of Information Law exchange, the Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District released full contract details regarding its regional methane digester on Thursday.

The district, which is a government entity and thus subject to FOIL, gave The Citizen its unredacted lease agreement with CH4 Generate Cayuga and an electric services agreement after The Citizen notified the agency it was preparing to take legal agency to secure the information.

The 2016 lease-to-own agreement reveals that CH4 Generate Cayuga, a company under the California-based firm Generate Capital, is paying the district $4 million over a 20-year period for the digester, which cost the district about $10.5 million to build. Besides an initial payment of $250,000, Generate Capital has been required to pay the district $16,666.67 per month, with the arrangement ending in 2036.

Proposed over a decade ago, the digester was pitched as a way to help local farmers get rid of excess manure by generating it into electricity that could be used by county-owned facilities. The district's original plan was to operate the digester on County House Road in Sennett itself, but it shut the system down in 2014 after struggling to make it cost effective.

That led to the county connecting with CH4 Generate Cayuga, which took on the lease agreement in January 2016. So far, the project has been back up and running since about April 2016. 

Meanwhile the district still owes Cayuga County approximately $1,225,000, loaned for the digester's construction, a principal amount that is expected to be paid off by 2033. By that year, the district will have paid the county about $2,125,564.75 including interest, according to the county treasurer's office.

As part of its deal with CH4, the district is purchasing electricity generated from the digester at $0.085 per kilowatt hour over a five-year period, with the option to renew for an additional five years. Cayuga County in turn has held an electric services agreement with the district since July 20, 2015, purchasing electricity from it at the same price.  

The district had partially denied The Citizen's original April 25 request for records on the digester lease and electricity services deal by redacting electricity pricing and lease financial information, as well as the contract lengths. The district argued the information was considered to be "a "trade secret" and thus exempt from public view.

The Citizen made a formal FOIL appeal to the district, quoting Robert Freeman, the executive director of the state Committee on Open Government. Based on the information provided, Freeman did not feel the "trade secret" exception was relevant. Nevertheless the district denied the appeal, with Chairman Ray Lockwood writing that he did not feel the public would care about such information and it would only be of interest to CH4 Generate Cayuga's competitors.

The newspaper then requested an advisory opinion from the state Committee on Open Government. On July 14, four days after the request, one was provided stating that neither CH4 Generate Cayuga nor the district "had provided sufficient justification for how the pricing and duration of agreement information would constitute 'trade secrets' nor have they provided persuasive evidence that disclosure would cause the harm envisioned by the statute."

The district still refused to release the information, so in September, The Citizen retained Albany-based attorney Michael J. Grygiel, a media law specialist from the international law firm of Greenberg Traurig LLP.

On Sept. 22, Grygiel sent a letter to the district's attorney, once more requesting the redacted information and stating the newspaper's intention to file a petition in court if it was not supplied.

Among several legal precedents supporting full disclosure that were outlined in the letter, Grygiel also pointed out that the district had already placed in the public domain some of the information it was withholding in the FOIL response. The Citizen was able to locate records filed with the Cayuga County Clerk's office showing the lease length, which was redacted in the original FOIL response, to be 20 years.

"(T)he District's withhold of the duration of the Lease Agreement after it had already been responsible for placing that information in the public domain indicates not only a lack of candor but bad faith in denying The Citizen's FOIL appeal," Grygiel wrote. "In the final analysis, the District's position exemplifies the recalcitrance the (New York state) Legislature intended to combat by its 2006 amendments to FOIL, and is precisely the type of 'runaround' that the New York Court of Appeals has condemned as inimical to an agency's disclosure obligations under FOIL."

Grygiel also notified the district that should the newspaper prevail in a legal challenge, it would ask a judge to require the district to cover its legal costs.

Neither Lockwood nor Doug Kierst, executive director of the district, responded to The Citizen's request for comment after the new disclosures last week. 

The Citizen file 

The Cayuga County digester in Sennett.

'Something for everyone:' Olde Tyme Fair in Auburn provides food and fun

AUBURN — Loraine Pinker and Connie Scollan, who met up at the 42nd annual Olde Tyme Fair in Auburn Saturday haven't seen each other since they went to the event together last year.

For the last couple years, the friends have met up at the United Methodist Church fair to shop and catch up. They said they had been enjoying themselves Saturday. When Pinker was pregnant with her son Paul 35 years ago, she got a blanket for him at the event's flea market.

The church's event included a chicken barbecue, shopping, toys and jams and jellies. All proceeds for the event go toward the church's mission ministry, which includes the various projects the organization is involved in the community and beyond.

The Rev. Richelle Goff, speaking while her daughters, Karis 4, and Zoe, 2, feasted, said the event provides food, community interaction and more for people.

"I think people crave community, being with other people, sharing in fun times and supporting the local church," Goff said.

Goff, who has been a pastor at the church for 10 years, said there were some placement changes for the fair this year, adding a kids room with wall-to-wall toys and games of various shapes and sizes for the first time.

Tucker Bellamy, 3, already having acquired a toy, proudly carried a sword reminiscent of a light saber from "Star Wars" that lit up green. His grandparents Mike and Linda said they've been going to the fair for five years and they happened to have Tucker to babysit that day, so they decided to take him. 

Mike and Linda said the event had no shortage of things for people to try out.

"For young and old, there's something for everyone," Linda Bellamy said.

Kelly Rocheleau / Kelly Rocheleau, The Citizen 

Zoe Goff, 2, the Rev. Richelle Goff and Karis Goff, 4, spend time together at the 42nd annual Olde Tyme Fair at Auburn United Methodist Church Saturday.

Former senator exploring primary

As Republicans are lining up for the opportunity to challenge Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2018, a handful of Democrats are exploring the possibility of giving the incumbent a competition for the party's nomination.

One of the Democrats considering a primary bid is Terry Gipson, a former state senator from the Hudson Valley. His interest in the race, he said in a phone interview with The Citizen, stems from his experience in the state Senate — he served from 2013 to 2015 — and other factors, including the small design business he owned and his work as a local government official in Rhinebeck, a Dutchess County village.

"It's in all of those various roles that I've continued to see a state government that refuses to do what it needs to do to serve the needs of the people," Gipson said. "And certainly as a Democrat, I am continuing to be frustrated that we live in one of the bluest states in the country and our state government continues to govern as if we live in Oklahoma."

Gipson echoes the frustrations shared by progressives that New York hasn't led on key issues, such as election reform, environmental protection, health care and public school funding. A major hurdle in achieving any of these legislative goals is the current makeup of state government.

Democrats are in control of the executive branch and they hold a vast majority of seats in the state Assembly. In the state Senate, 32 of 63 members are registered Democrats. However, eight of them are members of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, which has a power-sharing deal with Republicans. Another senator caucuses with the GOP.

There has been criticism of the Independent Democratic Conference members since the group's formation in 2011. Gipson, who served with members of the IDC, acknowledged that progressive groups have expressed frustration about the current arrangement which robs Democrats of a narrow majority in the Senate.

Critics also point to Cuomo's lack of action in reuniting IDC members with the mainline Senate Democratic Conference. He isn't interested in helping negotiate a settlement. In July, he told reporters that he has "no power or role in forcing the marriage."

Gipson believes one way to end the IDC is to elect a strong Democratic governor who will build a strong Democratic Party. He views the state party, which is controlled by the governor, as inefficient. Local party committees, he said, have been successful despite receiving little support from the state party.

"Ultimately, you have to have a new leader of the Democratic Party. You have to have a new Democratic governor to achieve all of these things," he said. "That person has to be a very committed Democrat that's willing to stand on hardcore progressive Democratic principles and not budge from those things and insist that his legislators come along and support him on that."

The IDC is one of the main reasons why Gipson is seriously considering a gubernatorial run in 2018, but it's the only issue on his mind.

He's heard from New Yorkers who are concerned about public school funding. Education advocates have long complained about the state school aid formula and how it's hurting schools, especially poor districts that lack resources of their own to fund programs.

Cuomo, Gipson said, hasn't made an effort to address the funding gap for struggling schools.

"The system needs to change," Gipson said. "The way to fund schools needs to change."

Gipson also supports election reform. He's a proponent of automatic voter registration, early voting and open primaries. Currently, the state doesn't have automatic registration, early voting and primaries are closed to members of the respective political parties.

To make his case for each of these proposals, Gipson recalled what happened in the 2014 gubernatorial primary. More than 574,000 Democrats voted in the three-way primary between Cuomo, Zephyr Teachout and Randy Credico. At the time, there were more than 5.4 million active Democratic voters, according to the state Board of Elections.

Cuomo, Gipson noted, didn't win the primary because of overwhelming support from the state's Democrats.

"He's sitting there because almost 90 percent of the registered voters didn't even vote," he said, adding that automatic voter registration, early voting and open primaries could boost turnout in New York.

Other issues on Gipson's agenda include high incarceration rates and a sizable prison population that is "a real drag on the economy."

Infrastructure is another high priority for him. He believes the state has fallen short in supporting infrastructure projects, whether it's the water mains in Syracuse or the subways in New York City.

"There probably isn't a local government in this state that isn't in need of help from its state government to help to fix some type of infrastructure," he said.

Gipson has been exploring a gubernatorial campaign for three months. He has been meeting with progressive groups across the state to discuss his ideas and collect feedback on why Cuomo should be challenged.

So far, he's received a positive reception from activists who are tired of the status quo and want change. He expects to make a final decision soon on whether he'll formally enter the race.

"If the answer continues to be yes, if the answer continues to be 'We'll support you,' then I'm going to do that," he said. ​