The administration of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, already beset by fiscal woes, has been hit with a $10.4 million court ruling for blocking a private firm from installing solar panels at the Ronkonkoma rail station parking lot.
In a 47-page decision, U.S. Magistrate Judge Anne Y. Shields, said county officials, starting in January 2012, began “intentionally stalling the Ronkonkoma project and failing to communicate” with the contractor by canceling meetings and screening calls to evade contact over the $120 million solar project.
The county’s actions “made contractual compliance ... impossible,” Shields wrote.
Shields ruled that EDF Renewable Development Inc. is entitled to “the money it expended on the purchase of solar panels, steel and other development costs connected to the Ronkonkoma site.”
Those costs include $5.4 million for solar modules that could not be resold or used in other projects, $2.3 million for steel foundations, $451,000 for carport structures, $241,000 for engineering and $920,000 in interest costs related to county delays.
Vanessa Baird Streeter, Bellone’s spokeswoman, said the county will appeal the ruling “based on the premise they overstated the damages and failed to act in a responsible manner to mitigate their losses.” Harris Cogan, attorney for EDF, had no immediate comment on the decision.
Shields’ ruling comes as county officials wrestle with a structural deficit — the difference between recurring revenues and expenses — of as much as $179.7 million in Bellone’s $2.97 billion budget for 2017, according to calculations by legislative budget analysts.
The spending plan is balanced by only by deferring operating expenses, continuing borrowing from the state retirement system and county sewer fund and unapproved state legislation to allow borrowing of $60 million over the next two years to pay for separation pay for retiring police officers.
The controversy over the solar program arose in 2012, when then-Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko asked Bellone to stop plans for installing solar panels at the county-owned rail station. Lesko feared it could hurt future expansion of the $450 million Ronkonkoma Hub, a 1,450-unit mixed use project.
The request came two years after Bellone’s predecessor, Steve Levy, signed a 20-year agreement with enXco of San Diego — later bought out by EDF — to lease space at seven county-owned parking lots including Ronkonkoma. Levy had rejected an earlier request from Tritec Real Estate Co., developer of the hub project, to forgo the Ronkonkoma site.
The contract called for EDF to produce 20 megawatts from solar carports — one third of which was to come from the 2,600-space Ronkonkoma lot. Suffolk was to net $10 million over the life of the lease.
During a nonjury trial in May, Suffolk said EDF needlessly bought materials before getting construction permits, failed to provide alternative parking needed during construction and did not give the county time, as required in the contract, to deal with difficulties that arose.
Shields, however, found the purchases reasonable because of concern over a worldwide shortage of solar panels.
She also found the contractors actively pursued an alternative parking site near the Ronkonkoma station, but were thwarted repeatedly by the county.
“EDF stood ready willing and able to comply with any … requirements necessary,” Shields said. “It was the county that failed to cooperate with EDF.”
Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) opposed the original deal because of what he called the high cost to ratepayers of the solar power. Power from the solar installations was to have been funneled to the LIPA grid.
Cilmi noted that the court ruling would wipe out the revenues the county had expected.
“This deal started off being bad for taxpayers and ratepayers and it’s ending up even worse than I expected,” Cilmi said.