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IDA scuttles plan to change tax break policy

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Elected officials on local government boards will still be able to decide whether to give tax breaks to housing developers.

The Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency was on the way to giving itself the power to require towns, counties and school boards to give certain tax breaks to businesses, even if the elected body did not agree to the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes arrangements. That plan has been dropped after an outcry from municipalities in the county.

“All we did was send it out into the communities to get their input,” said David J. Converse, the chairman of the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency. “We did not make anything formal. It got out there that this was a done deal, and that we were going to ram something down somebody’s throat. That’s not the way we work. We’re a part of the community.”

The agency considered the tax break policy change on the heels of some contentious negotiations with the Watertown City School District, which paved the way for completion of the 305-unit Beaver Meadow Apartments project. The school district and Jefferson County will receive about half of what they would have received without a tax break. Negotiations for a rail spur PILOT in West Carthage have also stopped dead in their tracks.

The school district debate pitted those who are trying to ease the north country’s Fort Drum-related housing crunch against those who felt it would put the school district, already suffering from two years of steep state funding cuts, in even more dire financial straits.

Though the Beaver Meadows tax break was eventually approved, concessions were made to make it palatable to the Watertown City School District. Now, more negotiations are on the horizon, including the tax break for the 394-unit Morgan Townhouses off County Route 202.

The IDA’s now-scuttled policy would have allowed it unilaterally to impose a standard pro rata distribution tax break, which is rarely used, said Donald C. Alexander, the agency’s CEO.

For example, the Beaver Meadows tax break changed the distribution and timing of the money among the three jurisdictions, so even if the policy had been in effect for that negotiation, the school board, the county and the town board still would have had the power to approve it or turn it down because it was not a standard pro rata tax break. A pro rata agreement splits the proceeds of the PILOT proportionally among the affected taxing agencies based on what their share of the full taxes would have been.

Mr. Alexander said the policy would have been a negotiating tool, and that in 41 years, the IDA had only enforced one tax break.

State law allows industrial development agencies to require that taxing districts give tax breaks, but the JCIDA changed its policy in November 2010 so that it could not do so in most cases, owing to fierce debate over wind turbine tax breaks.

When the agency board started discussing giving itself the power to give tax breaks again, the blowback was swift. West Carthage Mayor Scott M. Burto spoke out against the move amid the stalled railroad tax break negotiations there, and the West Carthage Board of Trustees passed a resolution opposing the policy. Mr. Burto said the Industrial Development Agency, which is governed by an unelected board, should not be able to force the tax breaks.

Several Jefferson County legislators opposed the change, too.

“This is a dead issue now,” said Legislator Michel J. Docteur, R-Cape Vincent, a voting IDA board member. “The (IDA) board is not moving forward with this. They decided not to move forward with the proposal because it was not popular with the Jefferson County Board of Legislators.”

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