By CAROLINE MURRAY
It's been four years since the last attempt to dissolve the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District. But state lawmakers are trying once again.
A bill was recently introduced to the state Legislature to dissolve the state agency, and transfer its responsibilities to the New York State Power Authority.
The Sacandaga Protection Committee, a group formed out of interest for property owners around the Great Sacandaga Lake, says abolishing the state agency creates concerns about the viability of a permit system that gives them lake access.
Assemblyman John T. McDonald III sponsored the bill in response to the dissatisfaction of five capital region counties recently required to pay millions for the district's flood control operations at the Great Sacandaga Lake.
"Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Washington and Warren counties are being handed a $3 million bill," McDonald said. "Throughout the whole 80-plus-year history of the regulating district, [the charges were] never intended for county government."
McDonald said he chose the Power Authority because it is a large organization with an extensive background in hydroelectric power, and would leave more room to renegotiate its operating system with the power companies.
McDonald said dissolving the HRBRRD would provide monetary relief to the counties, but the functions, duties and provisions of the district would continue.
That includes continuing the permit system for lakeside property owners, and paying property taxes the district annually disburses to Saratoga, Hamilton and Fulton counties, and school districts within those municipalities.
"Everything that the district does today would be done by the power authority. Everything," McDonald said.
The bill is similar to one proposed by state Sen. Neil D. Breslin in 2010, which also stemmed from the four-year legal battle that started when the regulating district first charged the five counties for the flood measures it provides.
The charges were the regulating district's response to a 2008 Federal Court of Appeals ruling that declared the district's 80-year practice of taxing hydropower plants illegal. It cut the district's revenue by approximately 80 percent.
The HRBRRD could no longer afford to pay the millions of dollars in taxes it owed to the aforementioned counties and school districts; bills that went unpaid until just recently.
The five counties countered by filing a lawsuit in 2010, but Supreme Court in Saratoga County ruled in favor of the district in April 2011.
All five counties later appealed the decision, but the higher courts upheld the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the regulating district.
The district worked with the counties to negotiate a settlement; the final apportionment assessed the state at a 22 percent share of the costs.
McDonald argues the district's services extend downstream to Dutchess County, and those municipalities do not subsidize the bill.
The bill downplays the regulating district's operations by pointing to its agreement with Brookfield Renewable Power to utilize a portion of the Conklingville Dam for its hydroelectric plant operation.
The agreement renounces the district's responsibility for water flow regulation, the bill says.
The bill says Brookfield Power "can take releases from Great Sacandaga Lake to generate electricity during hours when power sales are high, and withhold releases when rates are low," which results in an unsteady regulation of water.
Regulating district Executive Director Michael Clark said the district only controls the amount of water released in a 24-hour period, not how or when.
"How the hydroelectric power plants down river in turn store and release that amount of water is at [Brookfield's] discretion," Clark said. "We provide flood protection as well as augmentation. That is something we do very well."
McDonald's bill also criticizes the district's access permit system for Great Sacandaga Lake property owners for use of the man made reservoir's shoreline.
McDonald writes the land is protected by the state because it is "forever wild" and cannot be leased or sold unless a constitutional amendment is approved.
Clark said if another authority takes over, the future of the permit system is unknown.
However, Clark said the mission of the regulating district -- to provide flood protection -- would remain, regardless of who is in control.
The Sacandaga Protection Committee fears the worst.
In an e-mail blast, the committee expressed concerns that transferring power would ultimately lead to the destruction of the permit system.
The committee argues this could severely impact the value of properties around the lake.
On June 8, Lanzi's on the Lake in Mayfield is hosting a fundraiser organized to benefit the committee.
McDonald said if the regulating district is dissolved, nothing would change -- not the permit system or flood control -- only the letterhead and the personnel.
"We are trying to help the taxpayers here and once again the protect the permit holders and the school districts," McDonald said. "This does not intend to negatively impact them, if anything, I hope it provides a peaceful guarantee."