Portland council approves solar farm plan, delays TIF vote

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PORTLAND — Voting on tax increment financing and proposed amendments to the agreement with biotech company Immucell were postponed by the City Council to Monday, Sept. 19.

That did not stop some councilors from expressing reservations about the amendments at the Sept. 7 council meeting.

“I do have an issue with them being presented,” Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said of the TIF amendments. “I think this is a negotiation that has already been done.”

The meeting, held Sept. 7 because of the Sept. 5 Labor Day holiday, also saw councilors authorize City Manager Jon Jennings to negotiate a deal with Revision Energy to install a solar farm at the former Ocean Avenue landfill.

An ordinance banning city pet stores from selling dogs and cats from large-scale breeders was also approved. No stores in the city currently sell animals from those sources.

The TIF proposal that would return $374,000 of tax revenue based on increased valuations to Immucell over 12 years did not come up for a vote because the company must review whether its building plans met the city’s sustainable building codes.

Immucell, at 56 Evergreen Drive, wants to expand nearby on Caddie Lane to manufacture a new drug to fight mastitis in cows. The infection now requires farmers to discard milk, and the Mast Out product would treat mastitis without the need to throw away milk, Immucell President and CEO Michael Brigham explained last month.

The expansion comes at a cost of $17.5 million, with $3 million going to the construction of a 12,600-square-foot manufacturing plant that must be approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration before Mast Out can hit the market.

On Sept. 6, Mayor Ethan Strimling announced he would offer amendments to the TIF agreement that would set wage and labor standards during construction. The first amendment requires prevailing wages as defined by the Maine Department of Labor to be paid to workers.

Included are requirements that 25 percent of the labor hours for construction be filled by city residents who have been in Portland for at least 30 days. Concurrently, if possible, or separately, if not, 25 percent of labor hours would have to be filled by people who: belong to protected classes referenced in the Maine Human Rights Act; considered disadvantaged in terms of income, educational or living status; or are current or discharged veterans.

Protected classes include “race, color, national origin, sex, disability, genetic information, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.”

Those considered disadvantaged include people making less than 80 percent of the area median income, are homeless, custodial single parents, receiving public assistance or taking part in English as a second language courses.

The final amendment Strimling introduced requires contractors to have participated in Class A apprenticeship programs to develop skilled labor over the last three years.

The amendments do not apply to the 14 production jobs Brigham said the completed expansion will bring.

Councilor Jon Hinck also said he wants to amend the TIF agreement to ensure that construction meets the requirements of the city’s “green” building codes for efficiency and sustainability.

Strimling and Councilor David Brenerman withheld comments on the amendments. Brenerman is chairman of the council Economic Development Committee, which unanimously recommended passage of the original TIF agreement.

Councilors who spoke on the TIF did so after a 30-minute hearing, where opinions ranged from the need to provide good, local jobs immediately, to Strimling making a poorly timed attempt that could block a valued business expansion.

“I, too, applaud Immucell for being in the city and growing and creating good-paying jobs. If we put the responsible contractor language into these TIFs, we will have a line of workers coming out the door. They would love to come home and work and be around their families,” said John Napolitano, president of the Maine Building Trades Council.

Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chris Hall said the jobs discussion would be welcome – but at a later time.

“Mr. Mayor, please take your amendments to the proper location and allow us to have the policy debate outside of the context of this investment,” Hall said.

Councilor Jill Duson agreed with Hall.

“My interest is in seeing that broader context come back to the council,” she said. “I also will not be supporting reopening the TIF that is before us in order to insert these amendments.”

Sunny development

The order allowing negotiations to proceed toward development of a solar farm on 3 acres of the 30-acre capped landfill off Ocean Avenue was sponsored by Councilor Jon Hinck, who praised Jennings for helping revise the deal with Revision.

“It did not change the footprint, but did make it a better deal for the city,” Hinck said.

The 660-kilowatt array at the landfill is expected to generate 1.2 million kWh annually, enough electricity to power City Hall and Merrill Auditorium, according to city staff analysis.

The city would initially buy the power from Revision Energy and pay $50,000 to extend power lines to the solar farm. After six years, the city could buy the array for $1.6 million, although Jennings has said it may take longer because of city bond finances.

Overall, once the city owns the solar farm, it is projected to save $3 million in energy costs during its 40-year life.

Glen Brand, director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, helped move forward the project and another one in South Portland.

“We see the Ocean Avenue solar arrays as just the first major step in the city embarking on an aggressive plan to dramatically scale up solar production in Portland,” Brand said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.