Fieldcrest Illinois School District banking on wind farms to help pay for school upgrades

TOLUCA — Not often does road work being done in a lonesome corner of a largely rural county imply encouraging financial news for a school district facing the challenge of making multi-million dollar upgrades to two of its buildings.

But the work being done now in the far southeast corner of Marshall County is literally paving the way for one of the wind farms under development that Fieldcrest School District officials see as key factors in financing up to $35 million in improvements to the high school in Minonk and the middle school in Wenona.

The district is banking heavily on future income from at least two of those projects to hold down the taxpayer cost of the upgrades. That point that was underscored when a parent asked at a recent public hearing here how much it was going to cost taxpayers to pay back the bonds that the district tentatively plans to issue for the wide-ranging repairs, renovations, alterations, and additions slated for the two buildings.

District Superintendent Kari Rockwell couched her answer in terms of the two wind energy projects that are farthest along in development. The one in Marshall County, which has received zoning approval, has been projected to generate some $12 million in tax revenue for Fieldcrest over its 25-year life, while the estimate for one in Woodford County at an earlier stage of development is about $30 million.

“If we get (those) two wind farms,” taxpayers would be seeing an increase of about $26 or $27 a year on a $100,000 home, Rockwell indicated.

“That is not a final number,” she quickly emphasized. “Obviously, it will depend on what our final bond amounts are, and on how many of (four possible) wind farms actually come to fruition and become revenue sources for us. But that is our hope at this point.”

To put that in perspective, a $29 million referendum that the district floated two years ago to pay for new schools in both locations would have added some $390 a year to the taxes on that home. That plan was rejected by about 70% of voters.

Wind farms began to appear on the district’s horizon soon after that, as a largely different school board with Rockwell as a new superintendent began to consider alternatives. They now promise to transform the financial landscape of the district just as they alter the physical landscape of the countryside.

“We’re in a good spot with our wind farms,” board member Jordan Meyer said at the public hearing. “That takes a lot of the burden off our taxpayers.”

The current plan, which entails $21 million in Health Life Safety bonds and up to $14.5 million for general obligation bonds, does not require a referendum because it doesn’t involve new construction, board President Mykin Bernardi explained. Citizens could force a “back-door referendum” on the GO bonds with petition signatures, but there have been no indications of that; only five people attended the hearing, and none objected to the plans.

“This project is long overdue,” Rockwell noted in an email. “In talking with (community members), it seems apparent that our residents want to see the work done, along with a solid future maintenance plan so we don’t have many of these same issues in the future. Deferred maintenance has been a consistent theme and sticking point for many of those I’ve spoken with.”

Board member Joe Stasell said maintenance issues were a key factor when he ran for office about 18 months ago. But the buildings now need major work to be restored to safe and solid condition, he added.

“We’ve got to get this done. We’ve got to stop putting Band-Aids on stuff and get it done,” he said. “It sucks, it’s going to hurt, but we’ve got to do it.”

The Marshall County wind farm, called Bennington Wind, is to have 33 turbines in the township for which it’s named. Plans call for installing the turbines next spring and operation to begin in the fall, a developer representative told the County Board when the permit was granted.

The road work being done now is part of a road use agreement that is typically required of developers to ensure that the rural roads can accommodate the large loads without additional cost to the county or township. The upgrades are probably costing the developer $800,000 to $900,000, county engineer and zoning administrator Patrick Sloan estimated.

Author: Gary L. Smith, Peoria Journal Star

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