Originally created 09/13/03

Request to boost SRS tax delayed



AIKEN - County leaders from Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale have postponed asking the Savannah River Site for higher annual payments to their coffers until the Department of Energy selects a site for its newest nuclear weapons plant, which would mean new jobs and an economic boost if SRS is selected.

With five federal nuclear reservations competing for the $4 billion Modern Pit Facility, county officials worried their demand might jeopardize the site's chances of winning.

"It wasn't the right time to talk about that until we know what the mission will be in the future," Aiken County Administrator Clay Killian said. "Any new mission that may go out there, we're interested in getting it."

The counties expressed interest in higher property payments as late as July, but have momentarily abandoned the plan until DOE selects a location for the new facility, a plant that would manufacture softball-sized plutonium pits used to trigger atomic weapons, Mr. Killian said.

Department of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham won't make his selection until next spring, and with 1,500 new jobs at stake, county officials said the timing wasn't right to ask SRS for more money.

"If we've got priorities at hand, we don't need to be muddying the waters with any other request," said Heather Simmons Jones, the county administrator in Allendale.

The site's property payments to the counties were last negotiated in 1988, when the Lower Savannah Council of Governments represented Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale.

The council's executive director, Eric Thompson, conducted the negotiations and has been researching for the counties' next round of talks.

"Essentially nothing's happened since that time," he said. "This is just a continuation of that discussion."

SRS occupies 72,686 acres in Aiken County, 4,212 acres in Allendale County and 121,503 acres in Barnwell County. Although facilities and infrastructure at SRS are valued at $15.8 billion, DOE pays the counties based on $196 million value of the site's land only.

Aiken County, for example, receives $808,123 per year. If the total value of the site's buildings and infrastructure were also assessed, Aiken would get $111.7 million, based on the county's current mill rate.

The county's property values have been reassessed three times since 1998 without the SRS payment being adjusted. While an increased payment might have lightened the burden on Aiken County property owners, so would landing the new pit facility.

In 2020, when the new atomic trigger factory is supposed to be operational, its annual payroll would hover around $400 million. Estimates show its annual purchases, about 25 percent of which would be made locally, at about $45 million.

"Anything we can do to enhance the site getting more funding would be in favor of our long-term interest," said Aiken County Councilman Willar Hightower. "But I'm still of the opinion that if that property were for public use, we'd be getting more property tax."

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 279-6895 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.