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LeRay clerk retires today after guiding town finances for 39 years

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Steven T. Harter has an intimate relationship with the town of LeRay.

The supervisor’s administrative clerk — who retires today — has been quietly steering LeRay’s financial operations since 1974, a time when today’s beehive of businesses outside Fort Drum’s gate was almost nonexistent.

Mr. Harter shared with the Times some of the on-the-job wisdom he’s learned from the growing pains the town has experienced over the past four decades.

The 67-year-old has witnessed the town’s population — 21,782 according to the 2010 census — roughly quadruple since the 1970s.

As the town expanded over the past four decades, he said, so did its water and sewer infrastructure. And so did its tax base, which was buoyed by incoming apartment complexes, retailers and restaurants.

At 28, Mr. Harter was hired by former LeRay Supervisor James Cox as the part-time administrative clerk. Although he had worked part time in finance for the towns of Rutland and Watertown, LeRay presented a new challenge for the young accountant.

Municipal accounting offered challenges different than private-sector work he accomplished during his 40-year career at Marine Midland Bank in downtown Watertown, which later became HSBC Bank.

In the 1970s, “the town had active zoning and planning boards because they had experienced business and residential development on Route 3 between Watertown and Black River,” Mr. Harter said.

But Fort Drum — at the time named Camp Drum — was only a fledgling post compared to its massive size today.

“The on-base cadre was only a couple hundred troops,” he said.

LeRay had only one water and sewer district in the 1970s. That soon changed, though, when Fort Drum expanded in the mid-1980s. To meet the demand for military housing, the Army announced its plan to offer subsidized leases for developers that participated in its Section 801 housing program. In 1986, a plan materialized in LeRay to build the 300-unit Woodcliff community, an Army housing complex at routes 342 and 11.

“It was the first time the Army was willing to build in a location that didn’t already have water and sewer infrastructure,” he said. “We constructed sewer collection and water supply systems in 90 days. And the town was smart enough to see the larger picture, so it built the infrastructure to account for expansion.”

The 300-unit LeRay Heights apartment complex, another Section 801 project, was build across from Fort Drum’s north gate about a year later. Those major housing projects in the 1980s, coupled with other affordable housing, “immediately added 800-plus households to the rural area,” Mr. Harter said.

Then, in 2005, Walmart unveiled the plan for its superstore off Route 11 near Fort Drum’s main gate to the LeRay Planning Board. When it opened in January 2006, the launch of its neighboring strip mall soon followed.

A Planning Department led by a full-time community development coordinator started in 2006 to keep pace with business activity, Mr. Harter said. During the same year, the state Department of Transportation completed an access-management study of routes 11 and 342; in 2008, the town completed a commercial corridor study of the same business district. Those studies have served “like the Bible” for the town, Mr. Harter said, helping it manage business development by creating parallel roads off Route 11.

“If we didn’t have the plan, you would have businesses sitting on the edge of the road and honky-tonk signs everywhere,” he said.

Recent projects in the town include the new Fort Drum connector road, a 4.5-mile highway linking Interstate 81 to Route 11, and a biomass facility built at the former coal plant at Fort Drum by ReEnergy Holdings, Albany.

By adding revenue to the tax base, Mr. Harter said, large-scale housing and retail projects spurred by growth at Fort Drum have also been a boon for taxpayers. In 1974, LeRay’s tax rate was $2.41 per $1,000 of assessed value; the rate is $1.56 this year.

“Everyone’s assessment has gone up because their properties are worth more, but the rate has stayed low,” he said.

Taking over Mr. Harter’s position is 29-year-old Mark A. Capone, who was hired in September to learn his duties.

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