Covert Schools, Van Buren County Could Be Affected By Palisades Closure

Jan 30, 2017

8th graders work on a math assignment at Covert Public Schools
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Palisades Nuclear Power Plant is expected to close next year. That means more than 600 people will lose their jobs. That could also spell bad news for Van Buren County. The county gets almost $10 million in property taxes from Palisades every year.

“I’m just worried about the family members and losing their jobs basically and where are they going to go?” says Vanessa Fricke.

Fricke not only has friends that work at Palisades, she also coaches girls’ basketball at Covert Public Schools - which could take a hard hit if the nuclear plant closes. Right now, about half of the district’s funding comes from Palisades’ taxes.

A poster hanging in the main entrance to the Covert Public Schools building
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Superintendent Bobbi Morehead says money isn’t everything, but those tax dollars certainly make a difference. She says most of Covert’s students are minorities, many of them are in poverty, and the district has several students with special needs.

“When you have demographics such as I’ve just described you would see achievement much lower, but like you know it says we’re a rewards school, we’ve been beating the odds,” says Morehead.

The district receives so much money from Palisades’ property taxes, that they’re not entitled to the state’s funding foundation allowance.

Though the Michigan Public Service Commission still has to approve Palisades’ early closure, Morehead says the district is preparing for the worst. She says at the end of the fiscal year, most schools set aside five percent of the money left over as a kind of rainy day fund. Right now, Covert Schools sets aside 65 percent.

“We’re always preparing that things could change quickly. We know that when you’re out of formula, things can change very quickly,” says Morehead.

Van Buren County Administrator Doug Cultra says Palisades employs more than 130 people in the county. What’s more, he says, many of the people who there are well-paid, skilled professionals. Cultra says people like that tend to be leaders in their communities:

“The contributions they make to the community is soccer coaches, is baseball coaches, is people on the school board. Yes, those are the type of people that we could lose and that’s going to be a difficult void to fill. The average income it’s my understanding is like $65,000. So we’re talking about some highly skilled, intelligent people and it’s disappointing to think we’ll lose some of those people.”

Zach Morris works for Kinexus - the workforce and economic development agency for the county. He says some Palisades employees could find jobs with local utility companies and some are old enough to retire, but a good portion of those jobs are specific to nuclear power plants: 

“So you have reactor operators, they worked the actual reactor. They’re in that room that looks like it should be in NASA. It’s lots of dials and gauges and they’re looking at things, monitoring the performance of the plant from that standpoint, making sure it’s operating safely. You also have engineers, electrical and mechanical engineers - and those electrical and mechanical engineers are very transferable in their skill sets. Whereas the reactor operators - it’s pretty unique, right?”

Consumers Energy and Entergy plan to make a $10 million donation to help spur economic development in the area, though the companies have not said where those funds will go yet.

There could be a silver lining. Though the county might lose Palisades - its second largest tax payer - it could be getting more money from its first. The New Covert Generating power plant hasn’t paid all its property taxes since 2012. The county is currently in a lawsuit with the natural gas plant’s new owner, ArcLight Capital Partners.

“If they were actually paying taxes on what they’ve been assessed at, that would probably make up the difference in the long run definitely,” says Covert Schools Superintendent Bobbi Morehead.

Van Buren County Administrator Doug Cultra says the New Covert Generating property was assessed at more than $700 million.

Palisades plans to close October of 2018. The company says it will keep some employees on-hand during decommissioning, though it hasn’t said how many.