Year in Review Part One: My husband moves on (but not from me)

Late last year I blogged about what was very good news in our household: the passage of a bill creating the North Country Power Authority (NCPA).

The story of this project has become the stuff of novels since then, and there is probably not going to be an ending where the hero strides into the sunset, basking in the glory of a quest achieved. If there is such an ending, my husband is very unlikely to be that hero.

The complexities of human behavior are so much a part of the story that I am putting aside the urges to label causes, cast blame, point fingers. We’ll stick with irony and bemusement, and lift a glass to the prospect of a new year swept clean of the obsession of trying to save a project.

A brief synopsis:

We start with the successful passage of the bill enabling the NCPA. There was a team of people who worked to accomplish this, and there was a plan. The NY State legislature would not have enabled a dream; they passed the legislation because it looked like the new entity had a decent shot at success. The team of people included attorneys from out of state working on contingency, another attorney who had his pulse on the financial markets that would invest in the project, an engineering firm with substantial expertise in municipal utilities, and people from throughout the region, many of them elected officials. By the end of 2010, the outgoing Governor Patterson appointed five people to the NCPA board, so there was a bare quorum available to start work.

R. was one of the prime movers who got the project to this point. As Chairman of the ad-hoc inter-municipal group formed to try to make a regional municipal electric utility, he was the person who kept the team on the same page. Once the NCPA formed, he hoped to stay involved with the project as either staff or as a board member.

The year started with a full-court effort to organize the new power authority. The assumption of most was that the NCPA board would continue working with the same team to implement the plan. It turned out, however, that this assumption was not shared by everyone on the board. What followed was five months of steadily increasing acrimony on the board. Five votes were needed to do anything, and there were only five votes, meaning that all decisions had to be unanimous. In the course of the struggle, there were leaks of confidential documents to a national journal, letters written to Governor Cuomo, and a series of articles in the press depicting an increasingly dysfunctional board. This phase ended when one of the directors resigned, leaving the NCPA board with only 4 members and the inability to take any action whatsoever.

There were a series of meetings in the state capital, urging Governor Cuomo’s appointments office to appoint additional members to the NCPA board. R.’s name was one proposed to help fill the board to its full complement of 9 members. To this day, however, there have been no more appointments.

Meanwhile, the out-of-state law firm that had financed the work to date went into section 7 bankruptcy. Poof. Gone. With them went the work product, the basis of the plan that existed at the end of 2010. Because they were working on a contingency contract, no one had paid them money, so they owned the engineering studies. And they didn’t exist anymore. No tickee, no washee.

A couple of weeks ago, R. made the decision to withdraw his name from consideration as an NCPA board member. He believes that he was seen as too controversial in Albany, and that he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever being named to the board. By withdrawing, he hoped the appointment logjam might start to break, and that he would increase the level of peace and serenity in his life.

Then this news came this week: National Grid, the utility that serves our area, is cutting rates effective January 1, 2012, by a lot - by about the same amount that the NCPA could be expected to lower rates if it got up and running. It turns out that we have all been paying stranded costs, and that those costs have run their course and are expiring. Escaping those stranded costs was a big item in the feasibility analyses. Now we will all escape them, even without a municipal electric utility.

R. got a letter from Albany accepting his withdrawal the next day.

The NCPA now has to start from square one, and would be facing a complete re-do of its feasibility analysis even if the team and the plan had hung together. As the Watertown Daily Times puts it, “National Grid rates leave NCPA uncertain. Authority to determine if need still exists.”

There are a few lessons to be learned and relearned here.

- A good start is no guarantee of success.

- Rapidly shifting politics are hell on public sector projects that require many people to keep working together.

- An authority seemed like the only possible organizational structure for the project, because it was the only way to cut across boundaries between towns, villages, and counties. In the end, though, it is not a good structure for a project that has a goal of local empowerment, because an authority is a creature of the state, not of the localities it serves.

- Nothing in the events that followed can detract from the magnitude of what R. was able to accomplish last year.


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