By Warren Bluhm
Dominion and the town of Carlton have agreed on a settlement that sets the value of the closed Kewaunee nuclear plant at $15 million for the next eight years.
The three-man Town Board voted to approve the settlement after the town’s attorney on the case, Ben Brantmeier of Jefferson, briefed a crowd of more than 50 town residents who turned out Saturday morning.
At issue was the value of the Kewaunee Power Station, which was closed in 2013 and is undergoing a 60-year decommissioning process.
Dominion Energy Kewaunee Inc. filed suit in 2015 over the town’s assessment of the plant at $457.4 million, including the buildings and waterfront land along with personal property owned by the company. The company argued that the power station that closed in 2013 is essentially worthless and the personal property is worth about $1.28 million.
When the town issued a revised 2016 assessment for a total of $469 million, Dominion filed a second suit. A trial was tentatively scheduled to begin Feb. 28 in Kewaunee County Circuit Court before Door County Judge D. Todd Ehlers.
Town Chairman David Hardtke introduced Brantmeier by saying, “He did more for this town in the last four-five months than all the other attorneys we had in the last three years.”
Brantmeier said the company offered to agree that the property is worth $10 million, but the town had three strong arguments to raise that amount, beginning with the detailed research and conclusions reached by Town Assessor Al Kohnle.
“I want to compliment Al Kohnle on his assessment of the power plant; I think Al did a really nice job putting together an evaluation and opinion of value for a power plant,” Brantmeier said. “Unfortunately, the Wisconsin Property Assessment Manual is not written to value power plants.”
Although he said he believed Ehlers might have ruled in favor of the town, when the case reached the state Court of Appeals a key element is “whether or not you followed the Wisconsin Property Assessment Manual to a T,” and so a positive outcome for the town was less likely at that level.
The town also had the advantage of nuclear engineer Robert Abboud’s 2014 offer to buy the plant for $50 million and Dominion’s receiving renewal of its license to operate the plant in 2011 through 2032. Those actions indicate that the plant’s market value is more than $10 million, Brantmeier said.
The company was willing to increase the settlement from $10 million to $15 million but concluded it makes little sense from a business perspective to go any higher, and if the town had tried for more it could prolong the legal process indefinitely, he said.
Under the settlement the two sides agree that Dominion is entitled to a refund of $5,909,356 for 2015 and a refund or credit of $5,999,051 for 2016. But the company agreed to waive its claim to a refund of the town’s portion of those property taxes – about $240,000 for each of the two years.
As for other taxing entities – the county, school district, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and the state of Wisconsin – the two sides will ask Ehlers to approve a plan that allows the refund to be spread over 10 years. The plan would need further approval by the state Department of Revenue.
Brantmeier said Dominion made clear it did not want to “bankrupt” the county or other taxing entities.
“One of the things that was very important and Dominion wanted to ensure … and was pushing that – they would operate in good faith working with the county and working with the school district,” he said. “Their main concern was to have the least impact they could on the taxpayers and on the county and on the entities.”
County Board Chairman Robert Weidner, who was present at the town meeting, said he has already had a preliminary contact with Dominion about working out a plan.
After presenting the settlement and fielding questions for more than an hour, Hardtke said the agreement is the best the town could hope for.
“The thing to look at is what they’re offering is equal to, or probably even a little bit better, than if we went to court and won,” Hardtke said. “And the thing is, what if we go to court and lose? And the money is guaranteed for eight years.”
The company agrees not to challenge an assessment of up to $15 million through 2024.
Brantmeier said the board reviewed the settlement in a closed session after its regular meeting Tuesday night – and they could have approved it then and there.
“When we met in closed session, we could have reconvened right out of that closed session, because it was noticed, and they could have taken action to approve it,” Brantmeier said, “but your elected officials said, ‘No I’m not gonna do that, we don’t want to do that, we’re going to do it in front of the town after a public meeting on the issue.’”
With that the board voted 3-0 to OK the settlement, with Hardtke joined by Supervisors Steve Tadisch and Kenneth Paplham.
Now that the matter is completed, at least for the town of Carlton, Hardtke announced that Kohnle is resigning after three decades of service.
“He says he’s tired, he wants to go to more of his nieces and nephew’s basketball games,” Hardtke said. “I think this town owes him a round of applause for 30 years of assessing.
The board hired Melissa Daron as assessor during the open portion of Tuesday’s meeting, he said. Daron – who worked with Kohnle on the Dominion case – also serves as assessor for the towns of Pierce and West Kewaunee.