Welcomed Windfall

Published 8:08 am Thursday, February 15, 2018

JACKSON – Northampton County Public Schools are joining with 10 other educational districts to receive an unexpected windfall of cash.

In a bipartisan vote, both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly have approved House Bill 90, part of which redirects nearly $58 million that the utility companies involved in building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) promised to place in an escrow account controlled by Governor Roy Cooper.

According to published reports, the money was to cover costs of environmental harms caused by the pipeline, economic development projects, and renewable energy facilities in the eight North Carolina counties the pipeline would cross. The payments would occur in two phases: one when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission authorizes all the permits, and the second when the pipeline starts operating.

In late January, a short time after Cooper gave his blessings to the project, which included details about the special fund, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality issued a 401 water quality certification that is required for the ACP project to move forward in the state. Projects that will impact wetlands, buffers or waterways must obtain this certification.

It wasn’t long after that where a number of ethical and constitutional concerns across the political spectrum began to surface about the “voluntary contribution” made by the ACP partners.

“Gov. Cooper’s deal looks like a payment-for-permit and doesn’t pass the smell test, and the right thing to do is to take this ‘voluntary contribution’ to the state and use it to fund the educational needs of children in the poor, rural communities impacted by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown (R-Onslow), co-chair of the Senate Appropriations/Base Budget Committee, in a statement released to the statewide media.

That led to an amendment being added to House Bill 90, one that ensures students and families impacted by the placement of the ACP receive the direct benefit of Cooper’s special fund. The $57.8 million will be distributed to eight eastern North Carolina counties (11 total school districts), partly on the basis of the number of students in each district (ADM) and partly on the miles of pipeline going through the district.

According to a financial spreadsheet sent with the General Assembly’s news release, Northampton County will receive $3,574,629. Based on the above criteria, the county will gain $330,751 for its ADM (1,783 students) and $3,243,878 for the 22 miles of pipeline that will be constructed along the western portion of Northampton.

“We are ecstatic about receiving this money, but at this time we’re unsure when it will be available to us, and, upon receiving it, if there are any restrictions on how it is invested in our school system,” Dr. Monica Smith-Woofter, Superintendent of Northampton County Public Schools, told the R-C News-Herald on Tuesday of this week.

“We have an abundance of needs….we’re looking at our priorities, to include technology upgrades, instructional needs, facility upgrades, and teacher retention,” she added. “We are now having conversations about these priorities as we need to be prepared once the funding arrives.”

When asked if this newfound state money could be applied to building a new high school, Smith-Woofter replied, “we do not know what the stipulations will be from the state on how this money can be spent. We’re waiting on guidance from the state on that. I can assure you that we will utilize this money in ways that will best help our students.”

Other “pipeline counties” benefitting from this unexpected windfall are Cumberland, Halifax, Johnston, Nash, Wilson, Robeson, and Sampson. The three public school districts in Halifax County will combine to receive $4,720,983.

Backlash came from several directions on the governor’s Mitigation Memorandum of Understanding that established a board to distribute the money.

In a published report, Cooper stated the money is a voluntary contribution from the utility coalition building the pipeline from West Virginia through Virginia and eight North Carolina counties. He stressed that the fund was negotiated independently of the permitting process that led to the pipeline’s approval, and again cited a portion of its existence was for mitigating the environmental damage the pipeline will cause to wetlands, streams, and wildlife habitats.

Skeptics labeled it a slush fund and an improper exaction forcing the developers to pay for an environmental permit they already were entitled to receive. They further acknowledged that state and federal law already requires the utilities building the ACP to meet environmental mitigation requirements before the project can receive approval.

Cooper, through his spokesperson, answered his critics in a press release sent last Friday.

“Legislative Republicans have set a new low for partisan hypocrisy this week. Nearly every Republican legislator claims to support the Atlantic Coast Pipeline yet they wanted to stop counties in its path from getting resources to ensure this project is a success,” stated Ford Porter, spokesperson for Gov. Cooper.

“While meeting our energy needs, it is vital that we take steps to grow the economy and protect our environment in the counties this pipeline will cross. The ACP has provided similar funds in Virginia and engaged in negotiations with all three states where construction is to occur,” Porter added.

He continued by saying, “It was intended that decisions about the distribution of the fund would be made by experts through an open and transparent application process for government entities and qualified non-profits. The Rural Infrastructure Authority and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund are examples of two places that could fulfill those goals and distribute the funds.

“This is a good thing for our state. For Republican legislators to hijack this mitigation fund in favor of partisan political attacks is shameful and hurts eastern North Carolina,” Porter concluded.

In a press release sent yesterday (Wednesday) from the offices of Phil Berger, President Pro Tempore of the NC Senate, and House Speaker Tim Moore, the two legislative leaders encouraged Cooper to recuse himself from any further action on House Bill 90. Following the approval of a bill by both chambers of the state’s General Assembly, the governor has 30 days to sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

The leaders say Cooper should refrain from acting in light of a recently-filed ethics complaint that calls into question whether his obtaining $57.8 million from the energy companies building the pipeline just before granting a key permit to advance it violated the North Carolina State Government Ethics Act – especially since the bill also establishes a bipartisan board to investigate ethic complaints like the one filed against him.

They cited a Tuesday story in the News & Observer of Raleigh that reported Cooper and his family potentially stand to personally benefit from the $57.8 million fund as owners of close to 400 acres of land near the pipeline’s projected path.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

email author More by Cal