A divided West Baton Rouge Parish Council rejected a $22.5 million property tax exemption for a $240 million solar farm seeking to locate in the northern end of the parish. But other local leaders and the state Board of Commerce and Industry have yet to weigh in on the deal.
State economic development officials confirmed Monday that, if the board approves the incentive Wednesday, the Parish Council will have to take the matter up again in the specified 30- to 60-day timeframe. Otherwise, the denial won't stick.
During the council vote Thursday night, concerns about the 1,560-acre Ecoplexus Inc. solar farm — which would lie north of Port Allen and U.S. 190 — centered around the cost of incentives, the relatively small number of jobs created and what more solar farms on agricultural land could mean for the sugar cane industry in the parish.
Proposed for farmland along Bueche Road, the Louisiana solar complex would create 10 permanent jobs, up from the single, contracted-out position backers promised during earlier discussions of the deal.
Councilman Caleb Kleinpeter aired skepticism last week of Ecoplexus' last-minute job numbers and sales tax estimates — $9.8 million over the first two years of construction — and questioned whether this investment in public tax money and valuable agricultural land was the wisest choice for an exemption.
"We want growth, but we want smart growth," Kleinpeter said Monday.
Other members who backed the deal, including Councilman Chris "Fish" Kershaw, touted the its sales tax and property benefits.
The West Baton Rouge acreage eyed for the site currently generates $18,000 per year in taxes, said Jayson Newell, regional director of business development for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce.
Once built, the solar farm would generate $742,000 in property tax collections in the first year. Over 20 years, even with the exemption, the solar project still would generate $28 million.
Kershaw said the revised job figure, which stemmed from Ecoplexus' commitment to hire electrical technicians and others who would have earlier been contractors, put his support for the deal over the top.
"That's a gamechanger for me," Kershaw said during discussions late last week.
Employees would be paid an annual salary of $60,000 per year.
The project is also expected to create 436 temporary construction jobs.
Based in San Francisco, Ecoplexus develops, owns and operates solar operations in the U.S. and internationally, with 750 megawatts of power in operation and another 1,500 megawatts under construction or awaiting construction, the company says.
The council's final 6-3 vote to reject the exemption late last week came out of the typical order for local governments to weigh in on the state's industrial tax exemption program. The council did that at the request of Ecoplexus and their Louisiana subsidiary, Bueche PV1 LLC.
The state Board of Commerce and Industrial typically votes first on tax exemption requests, but the board isn't expected to consider Bueche PV1's request for a 10-year, 80% tax exemption until Wednesday in Baton Rouge.
Consultants working for Bueche PVI told council members that the request for an early vote had been made to help the company meet quick investment decision timelines expected to follow the state board vote.
The resolution the council rejected was a prospective approval of the Ecoplexus exemption, conditioned on approval by the Board of Commerce and Industry. It asserts the council won't be required to take up the resolution after the normal 30-day period starts.
But Gary Perilloux, spokesman for the state Department of Economic Development, said Monday that the early vote by the Parish Council won't be recognized as official.
Under state rules, industrial exemptions are considered approved if local governments that fail to meet the state deadlines for a vote.
The sheriff and parish School Board also have a say on the exemptions, but the School Board hasn't voted yet on the exemption, Superintendent Wesley Watts said. It's not clear if Sheriff Mike Cazes has acted on the exemption request; he did not return requests for comment Monday.
Officials with Bueche PV1 and Ecoplexus couldn't be reached for comment Monday.