by Sarah Squires
An update to Winona County’s wind turbine project Tuesday was dominated by commissioner and project supporter Dwayne Voegeli, who blasted the Winona Post for its accounts of criticism of the $3.6 million public/private venture.
It isn’t the first time that Voegeli has taken a vehement tone with his defense of the project, which will couple taxpayer money with private dollars to construct two wind turbines in Mount Vernon Township. But this tirade took a more personal tone as Voegeli rapped the Winona Post as not being a “serious newspaper,” rather, “a good example of a free press, when you own your own newspaper.”
Voegeli claimed that the Winona Post hasn’t fairly covered the turbine project and failed to quote as many project supporters, like himself, in regard to the project. “I can count on one hand how many times Ms. Elmquist has contacted me,” he said. “It’s just frustrating.”
Voegeli attempted to quell concerns from commissioner Marcia Ward — who has remained the only county elected official with outstanding concerns about the project and its use of tax dollars — accusing her of just trying to get quoted in the media. Voegeli in the past has sparred with Ward on the project, and has repeatedly asked her not to bring her concerns to board meetings and the public, but instead have her questions answered by county staff, in private.
In fact, a heated exchange between Voegeli and Ward in November 2008 sparked a lesson in both board etiquette and parliamentary procedure. Voegeli, who was then board chair, repeatedly attempted to quiet comments from Ward on the turbine project, banging his gavel and claiming he could “gavel [her] down.” At a subsequent meeting the board spent considerable time reviewing its own board procedure and discovered that Voegeli did not, in fact, have the right to gavel anyone down or limit board discussion on the issue.
Winona County and its Economic Development Authority (EDA) have been working on the turbine project for over four years, and received special legislative approval last year to form a limited liability corporation (LLC) to partner with private investors. The ownership model for the venture has been coined the “Minnesota Flip,” with private investors owning 99 percent of the development and profits for the first ten years, and county taxpayers to own 90 percent after. Projections show the county could make about $1 million over the next 20 years, with investors gaining $3 million. The county has, thus far, paid about $200,000, and is expected to be reimbursed for all but about $35,000 through an investor agreement.
As first reported in the Winona Post, the project did recently find an investor, for now unnamed, and the investment agreement is simply waiting for the paperwork on the electrical connection with Xcel Energy to move ahead. Most recently, the Winona Post reported concerns expressed by Ward about the investment opportunity for the development not being made available to local citizens. Rather, one large anonymous investor seems to have been chosen.
Voegeli defended the investor arrangement Tuesday, saying that the only way for the project to work was to couple with a large investor. “It’s hard to be a trailblazer,” he said of the unprecedented public/private wind venture.
Board Vice Chair Mena Kaehler asked when it might be appropriate for a dissenting board member to let go of concerns and objections and just support the majority board vote, to which board chair Jim Pomeroy and Voegeli both said it seemed to be up to the individual board member.
Ward, in response, said that although the board had already voted on the twin turbine project and passed it, she felt it was her job to continue to oversee the spending of taxpayer money and to ensure that the project was the best it could be. County money, along with state and federal grants and tax breaks, didn’t just come from some bake sale, she said. It’s all tax money, and it should be handled carefully. “I feel that I need to be monitoring tax dollars,” said Ward.
The Winona Post has covered the county’s turbine project extensively over the last four years, interviewing and quoting many officials and members of the public on both sides of the issue. This material can be viewed at www.winonapost.com by searching “turbine.”