SPRINGFIELD, Ill. • A Sangamon County judge today effectively froze an attempt by the newly expanded Wood River Refinery to lower its expected property taxes, while the court decides whether two state agencies have been helping it in violation of the state’s open meetings and freedom of information laws.
Local governments in and around Roxana claim in a pending lawsuit that the refinery owners, the state Pollution Control Board, and the state EPA have effectively shut them out of decisions that could cost local schools and other taxing bodies millions of dollars in lost property taxes.
Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt ruled in a hearing today that there are enough questions in the matter to “put a freeze” on any further action until the next court hearing later this month.
“I think the pleadings in the case raise a question about whether or not the rules are being followed,” Schmidt told attorneys for the refinery owners and for the local governments.
Schmidt acknowledged that he was imposing “an extraordinary remedy,” but that “I’m concerned” about the whether the proposed tax cuts are being improperly approved. The only way to address that, he said, is to “put a freeze on them, to stop them from moving forward.”
Schmidt ruled that “there are to be no more meetings” involving parties in the dispute, until after an April 25 hearing to consider the claims. “They are not to occur,” he said.
At issue is last year’s $3.8 billion expansion project to the Madison County refinery, owned by WRB Refining LP—a joint venture of ConocoPhilips and Cenovus Energy Inc. in Roxana and Hartford. The refinery has sought to reduce the expected increase in its assessed valuation by claiming that the vast majority of its operation is dedicated to pollution control.
Designation as a pollution control facility means its property taxes could drop dramatically—which in turn means that local school districts and other taxing bodies get far less money from the facility.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the village of Roxana and the school districts in Roxana, Wood River and East Alton. They say they weren’t initially aware of the move because the state’s Pollution Control Board and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency didn’t provide proper information and public access to meetings as required by state law. They say the agencies have violated the state’s Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act, essentially shutting the local taxing bodies out of the process.
As a result, the suit claims, those bodies haven’t been able to formally dispute what they say is an obviously suspect claim: That $3 billion of the refinery’s $3.8 billion expansion was dedicated to pollution control, rather than to the business of refining fuel.
“We’ve anticipated that (the tax cuts) will be rubber-stamped next week” by the state officials, plaintiff’s attorney Don Craven told the court in seeking the injunction.
Attorneys for the state unsuccessfully argued that the court shouldn’t freeze further action on the issue until evidence of the plaintiff’s claims have been litigated.