08/01/2012 12:00 EDT | Updated 10/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia court approves plan for settlement of outstanding NewPage tax bill

HALIFAX - The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia approved a plan Wednesday that would see 11 municipalities paid about $3 million in outstanding property taxes if the sale of the idle NewPage Port Hawkesbury paper mill is approved.

Most of that money — about $2.6 million — is owed to Richmond County, the Cape Breton municipality where the mill is located.

The $3 million figure represents the total expected tax bill and interest as of Aug. 31, 2012 — the date that the court expects to finalize the sale of the mill to Vancouver-based Pacific West Commercial Corp.

NewPage's two paper machines in Point Tupper, N.S., were shut down in September, throwing 600 employees out of work and affecting another 400 forestry workers.

Negotiations continue for a $33 million sale to Pacific West Commercial, whose bid to buy the mill was selected in January by Ernst & Young, the court-appointed monitor overseeing the sale.

On Wednesday, the court also approved the tentative settlement of other so-called priority secured claims, including about $105,000 in charges from Morneau Sheppell Ltd., the administrator of NewPage's two pension plans.

Morneau Sheppell had been seeking $490,000 before the settlement was reached.

As well, the court approved priority secured status for $150,000 in claims under the Builders' Lien Act from the Andritz Companies and George F. MacDonald and Sons Bulldozing and Trucking Ltd. The companies said they were actually owed $287,000 but they agreed to settle for less.

The court also approved a tentative plan to have several other unsecured creditors discharge their liens against NewPage in exchange for a series of proposed settlements worth more than $500,000.

"The court has now blessed those settlements," said Ernst & Young spokesman Mathew Harris outside court.

The court's determination of which claims held priority secured status is important because it marks another step in the process of determining who is owed what in the wake of the plant shutdown.

"That gives us certainty so that we know what has to be paid out in advance of funds that go to the general, unsecured creditors," said Harris.

He said it has already been determined that U.S. investors, known as guaranteed noteholders, will get $31 million if the sale is approved.

That money will come from a pot of funds that includes the proposed $33 million sale price and a $3 million reserve fund.

Once the noteholders and priority secured creditors are paid and administrative costs are covered, it's expected that about $2.5 million will be left over for general unsecured creditors, Harris said.

About 300 creditors — who claim they are owed about $200 million — are expected to vote on a so-called plan of arrangement on Aug. 15 in Port Hawkesbury. If the plan is approved, the court is expected to sanction the deal on Aug. 28.

Pacific West Commercial has indicated it wants to restart one of the plant's two machines by Sept. 1.

The company has already won concessions from unionized employees. It plans to lay off 320 of its 550-member workforce.

The company has yet to reach a deal with the province on access to Crown lands, and it is awaiting regulatory approval for a complex power rate deal with the province's privately owned electric utility, Nova Scotia Power Inc.