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Group puts supervisor in hot seat over solar ties

Kirk Uhler says his employer not involved with tax issue
By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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Supervisor Kirk Uhler’s status as employee of a solar-power business that has contracted with Placer County is getting some close scrutiny from a Granite Bay group threatening to mount a recall drive. The business – Roseville’s Solar Power Inc. – built a ground-based facility on just more than a quarter-acre of county-owned land in North Auburn in summer 2007 to supply the Juvenile Detention Center with electricity. The group – Save Granite Bay – is led by Will Ellis, a Granite Bay doctor. Ellis said he’s attended meetings of the local municipal advisory committee over three years and grown frustrated with Uhler’s unwillingness to listen to the public. Now, the solar system’s tax-exempt status is facing a hearing before the county Assessment Appeals Board on the question of whether the array of 2,424 panels are eligible to be taxed as property. The land below the system is leased from the county for $1 per year. Uhler, Solar Power’s vice president of government and industry relations, said he won’t be attending the appeal hearing Monday in Auburn and doesn’t expect anyone from his employer to be there. “It’s not our system,” Uhler said. “We’re the contractor to build the array and monitor it but a bank out of Australia owns the system.” The owner is global investment bank Macquarie Group Ltd., based in Sydney, Australia, he said. With the appeals board considering triggering a tax assessment on the solar hardware and Uhler at odds with Ellis and the Save Granite Bay organization over the county’s plans to open up the district’s community plan for revisions, the group has used its Web site to post comments about the hearing. The session is expected to take place Monday in front of the appeals board. “Uhler isn’t just wasting dollars on an unpopular plan update,” the site states. “We received a tip about allegations of tax evasion by Solar Power Inc.” Ellis said he or his group haven’t waded through the allegations by Auburn’s Chris Beckman. “I’m not sure where we stand but they are documents worth taking a look at,” Ellis said. Save Granite Bay is concerned about opening up the community plan and the impact new development would have on current standards, Ellis added. The recall effort has not reached the actual point of signature gathering. About 10,000 signatures are expected to be required. “At this point we’re mostly gathering information,” Ellis said. “But when this comes up, we wonder what he’s really doing.” Ellis said that, like Uhler, he’s a Republican. He added that he’s not seeking political office. In an e-mail message Beckman said the hearing Monday will be on whether Uhler’s company evaded payment of property taxes to Placer County. Beckman came forward with an inch-thick stack of information on Solar Power after Save Granite Bay asked on its Web site for information that could be used in a recall drive against Uhler, Ellis said. Supervisors approved the Solar Power contract in late-September 2006. Uhler was in the supervisors chambers that day with Solar Power executive Todd Lindstrom, currently president of the company’s Yes! Solar Solutions subsidiary. Neither spoke on the contract. At the time, Facility Services Director Jim Durfee said the difference between the $1-a-year lease being sought and fair-market rent on the solar field property would be offset by below-market energy prices the county would receive. Assumption of ownership of the system after 10 years was also in the contract. Plans were to pay Solar Power $50,000 a year over 10 years and take over ownership of the power plant. The solar plant would deliver electricity for the next 25 years after that. Energy value of the project over the 40-year lifespan of the field was worth an estimated $3.9 million. Durfee said the county would be able to realize a full return on the project’s investment after 14 years. At the same time, Solar Power was eligible to receive a $975,000 Pacific Gas & Electric solar incentive rebate. Uhler was named as Granite Bay Supervisor Ted Gaines’ successor after the November 2006 election that saw Gaines elevated to the Assembly. Uhler took office in late-December 2006. He left the board chambers because of a potential conflict of interest during discussions in September 2007 when Solar Power was back before the board. The energy business asked to restructure the contract because it was facing the possibility of losing federal tax credits. Durfee outlined to the four board members a snag in the pact that occurred after the Internal Revenue Service clarified tax code language. To retain tax credits for Solar Power, the board agreed to have the county drop language in the original contract about purchasing the solar array for $500,000. New language was added that allowed the county to extend what was termed a lease, buy the array at fair market value or terminate the agreement. Supervisors could have stuck with the old contract, leaving Solar Power without potential tax credits. Voting with other supervisors in favor of the change, Roseville Supervisor Rocky Rockholm said he considered it a fair action to take. Durfee said the new agreement adjusted the buy-back rate to allow additional energy savings of $126,000 over 10 years, while relieving the county of the commitment to buy the system for $500,000. Uhler said this week that while Solar Power isn’t involved he thinks the appeal will be turned down because of state law passed five years ago that says if you install solar equipment, no new taxable assessments will be triggered. Ellis said he plans to attend the hearing on Monday – a session that could provide a recall drive with more ammunition to use against Uhler. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com.