Sullivan West Board Votes to End Tax Abatements
By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON January 16, 2007 Thursday’s Sullivan West school board meeting began on a tearfully somber note.
Gary and Jean Krantz of Jeffersonville attended to ask the board to only let seniors drive to the Lake Huntington campus.
“Driving to school should be a privilege, not something they do because they can,” said Gary.
“These children are just not capable of making the decisions they need to when the situation arises,” added Jean, tearing up while recalling the November death of her 16-year-old son, Scott, in a Callicoon accident.
“It’s too late for us,” Gary concluded, “but maybe it will help someone else.”
Though the Krantzes had already left by the end of the 31⁄2-hour board meeting, Superintendent Alan Derry told the board just before it finished that he is considering such a policy as one of many potential solutions.
“It is an area of very deep concern to me,” he said, a sentiment echoed by board members Noel van Swol and Rick Lander.
Derry remarked that other countries have much stricter rules about young drivers.
“I did not lose one student in 17 years overseas [as a school administrator],” he recalled. “There needs to be a cultural change in how we approach these circumstances.”
He added that a large community/school group is being formed to deal with responses and policies regarding tragedies resulting from reckless driving.
A public hearing will likely be held on any recommendations.
Angry Words, Split Vote
The hottest topic of the evening, however, was Board President Arthur Norden’s desire to repeal a tax abatement given to new businesses within district boundaries.
Like all state public school districts, SW can voluntarily grant an abatement on school taxes to new businesses for 10 years 50 percent off the assessed value the first year and a reduction every year thereafter, until all taxes are being paid after the decade is out.
Upset with the Sullivan County Industrial Development Agency’s (IDA) recent tax abatements for the Millennium Pipeline project which he said would cost the district more than half a million dollars every year in lost revenue Norden pressed for an elimination of the new business abatement.
Though this won’t affect the IDA’s procedures, “we’re trying to eliminate one of the poisons,” said Norden.
However, it also won’t affect businesses currently receiving the abatements.
“We’re just asking [new businesses] for their little fair share to offset the huge burden they’re bringing into the school district,” he added.
That set off an argument about whether or not businesses “burden” school districts with more children or if their very presence helps drive up assessments and offset tax increases.
“The abatement encourages businesses to move into the area,” said board member Anna Niemann, explaining that a $300,000 business operating on two acres of land will pay far more in taxes than a vacant two acres.
“And we’re not losing any taxes [through this],” she continued, citing the fact that the lost revenue is spread out over the population to pay.
“It’s just on your back or my back, as opposed to other people’s backs,” replied board member Rose Crotty.
Niemann and Lander argued that the abatements are meant to generate economic growth, but Norden was insistent that districts reap little to no benefit from it and can easily incur extra costs when those businesses’ employees send their children to SW.
Board member Catherine Novak, Niemann and Lander, however, also complained that they hadn’t had enough time to review the matter, with Niemann asking the board to table it until an expert could attend and point out the pros and cons.
That would have had to happen at the February meeting, as March 1 is Taxable Status Day after which such abatements are set for the year.
Her motion failed 5-4, however, being supported by herself, Lander, Novak and Shawn Bailey.
It also sparked a nasty war of words between Norden and Novak, spilling over into a similar war with Lander. Norden angrily portrayed both Novak and Lander as being willfully ignorant of the serious tax impacts, while Lander made the same charge of Norden. Novak said she was insulted by Norden’s condescending, abrasive manner, while Norden implied that she didn’t have the courage to take a stand to protect district interests.
“This is totally off-base,” said Lander. “Sullivan County is a depressed area. We need jobs; we need growth!”
“Our job is not to entice kids to come here,” shot back Norden. “Our job is to run the school district.”
“If we opt out of this, are they [business owners] going to find a way around this?” asked Novak, charging Norden with using his anger against the IDA to fuel a hotheaded rush to judgment and unreasonably ignoring her request to seek out more information.
“I cannot find a single, justifiable reason for a school district to get involved in abating taxes for a business,” Norden insisted. “I think this is reckless to keep this in place. If you want to come to Sullivan County… then pay your fair share in educating the kids of our community.”
And if businesses want this abatement, he added, they should come ask for it from the board, rather than expecting it to be handed out, no questions asked.
In the end, the majority of the board agreed with Norden, passing the repealment of the exemption by 6-3, with Niemann, Novak and Lander opposed.
Derry, trying to calm the situation, promised the board that he is developing a strategy to respond to the Millennium Pipeline’s massive hit on school taxes.
“I think it’s an absolute sham,” Derry remarked of the project’s abatements. “They bring nothing to the district.”
“[The IDA] doesn’t have the foggiest idea of what it takes to run a school district,” said Norden, citing inaccurate cost-per-pupil figures the IDA used to grant Millennium’s abatements. “We need to get a culture going in Sullivan County that we don’t give away our kids’ education… Let’s send a message across the state: ‘Don’t mess with school taxes leave that out of it!’”
The board reluctantly approved Elementary Principal (and longtime Fosterdale resident) Jacalyn Robisch’s retirement request, effective this July.
“We will miss her,” said Novak.
“She will be missed,” agreed board member Shaun Sensiba.
“She was an exceptional human being,” added Derry, saying he’s not given to hyperbole. “It will be a tremendous loss to the district.”