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Assessor stalls county solar power review

By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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A review of what some residents allege is a sweetheart deal by the county involving a solar power company that employs Placer County Supervisor Kirk Uhler will have to wait until the summer. Assessor Kristen Spears said Monday that August is being targeted for completing a review on the taxable status of a privately held solar power facility on Placer County-owned land in North Auburn. Reporting to the Assessment Appeals Board during a hearing Monday in Auburn, Spears said her office is conducting a review on county solar power agreements to determine if any property taxes are triggered in contracts. No property tax is now being paid and a former county employee is leading a drive to dig deeper into what he considers a flawed contract and decision not to tax. Because of the necessity of completing the property-tax assessment roll first, the review will have to wait until July or August, Spears said. The assessment roll is due to be completed by the end of June. The appeals board asked the Assessor’s Office to look into the possibility – initially requested by Auburn resident Chris Beckman – that the $1-a-year ground lease the county has agreed to as part of the solar-power agreement doesn’t reflect the taxable value of the property. Beckman, a former supervising appraiser with the county, said at the meeting that he appreciates the interest being taken by the assessor’s office and appeals board on his request for another look at the county agreement. He added that he’s not requesting an assessment of the solar panels that make up the three-acre field in North Auburn. Instead, he’s asking for a review of whether the lease agreement triggers an assessment on the land. “I’m looking solely at the land component and whether there is a possessory interest,” Beckman said. “And if so, why is it not on the roll?” The inquiry has been complicated by recent days by a Granite Bay’s group’s use of Beckman’s research in its march toward a possible recall campaign against Supervisor Kirk Uhler. Uhler is vice president of government and industry relations for Roseville’s Solar Power Inc., which signed the initial contract with Placer County and installed the system in mid-2006 adjacent to the Juvenile Detention Center on Richardson Drive. Uhler, who took office in mid-December 2006 , said last week that Solar Power Inc. served as contractor on the construction project and now has no financial interest in the North Auburn field. Jeff Winzeler, Solar Power Inc. chief financial officer, attended Monday’s meeting and said afterward that he was hoping for a quicker resolution on a tax question that revolves more around current leaseholder and solar equipment owner Macquarie Group Ltd. of Sydney, Australia. Another company, Solar Power Partners of Mill Valley, leases the equipment from Macquarie and pays the lease with revenues generated from power the site supplies to Placer County, he said. “Solar Power Inc. is completely out of it,” Winzeler said. Beckman said that the county’s lease for 10 acres with Home Depot in North Auburn is a good comparison. He handed out information to people attending the hearing showing Home Depot signed a 20-year lease in 2001 with the county worth $4.3 million. Winzeler said solar installers typically lease space on areas such as a roof on a supermarket. The lease is for a nominal amount to facilitate installment, he said. Richard Ellis, leader of the recently formed Save Granite Bay group, attended Monday’s appeals board hearing. His group has concerns about Uhler and his role in county plans to open up the Granite Bay community plan for possible revisions. That led them to ask the public for more information on Uhler. And that resulted in posting information on Beckman’s concerns. “We’ll need to see what happens in August,” Ellis said. Wally Reemelin, president of the League of Placer County Taxpayers watchdog group also was at the hearing but declined to comment afterward. Uhler has been instructed not to comment on actions related to his employer. Winzeler said his company has told all parties involved in the review that Solar Power Inc. is happy to provide all documentation it can. “Kirk Uhler’s involved with a group (Save Granite Bay) that clearly has an agenda,” Winzeler said. “I feel that Solar Power Inc. is caught in the crossfire.” The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com.