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Campaigning intensifies as Potsdam rec district vote approaches

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POTSDAM — A vote to create a recreation taxing district will take place Thursday, and advocates for both sides have tried to stir up interest among sympathetic voters to tip the election in their favor.

The vote will decide whether to create a special taxing district, containing all town property except the village of Norwood, to fund the recreation program. The district would raise $380,000 in its first year, requiring a tax rate of about 80 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

An effort to create a special district has been in the works for about a year, since the village voted to drop its 50 percent share of financial support for the recreation program by Jan. 1, 2015.

The election will be held from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Town Hall, 18 Elm St. All property owners within the district, including corporations, are eligible to vote. The rules are mandated by state law.

Town Supervisor Marie C. Regan said that even though the town has proposed creating the district, it is not advocating either way for this week’s vote. There are pros and cons to both sides, and she said she still has “mixed feelings” on whether creating a special district would be beneficial in the long term.

“We do think rec is important,” Mrs. Regan said. “We’re not sure this is the best solution. We’re going to let the people decide.”

The town’s hands are tied by the village’s decision to stop funding the program, she said. “We’re only doing this because we have to.”

Mrs. Regan said she cannot predict which way the vote will go. Public hearings on the subject have been sparsely attended.

Town residents who do not live near Potsdam’s beach or arena, and face a tax increase to fund services they likely will not use, presumably are more inclined to vote no. Village residents can expect to see their taxes lowered.

Village Administrator David H. Fenton Jr. said if the district is approved, town and village property owners will pay the same rate to fund recreation, rather than village residents paying a higher rate per $1,000 of assessed value.

“Town residents currently pay 68 cents per thousand,” Mr. Fenton said. “Village residents pay close to $1 per thousand. With the taxing district, everybody would be paying about 80 cents.”

Based on the estimated tax rate, village taxpayers would see a little less than a 20-cent-per-thousand drop, and outside taxpayers would see about a 12-cent-per-thousand increase. The cost within the district for a property assessed at $125,000 would be $100 in town taxes.

Mrs. Regan said a recreation program is important for town residents’ quality of life, and believes the town could do a better job handling the program by itself without village input.

“For years we’ve had ideas of ways to raise more money,” she said. “I think we’ve been a thorn in the side for the village.” By taking control of the program, she said, the town could improve the program and find new ways to cut costs and raise revenues.

However, the new district also would bring new expenses. If the town takes over, its budget will go up by at least $190,000 next year, a 5 percent increase.

Further expenses may follow. Pine Street Arena is aging and in disrepair. Recently a compressor broke, and will cost at least $30,000 to fix, Mrs. Regan said.

“You can’t continue with that kind of dying equipment and deteriorating building,” she said.

Village officials have been advocating for the district for weeks. The village decided to stop funding the program because of concerns it was paying a disproportionate share of the cost.

“Supporting the district is going to make it a better program, and it’s going to allow the program to be funded fairly, so that everyone shares the cost equally,” Mayor Steven W. Yurgartis said. “I think in our community, quality of life is very important up here, and part of that quality of life is providing recreational opportunities for children.”

Some town residents living outside the village have begun campaigning against the district, saying they are fed up with new taxes.

“Why can’t they charge a fee for using their facility, or better yet, turn it over to a private entity, put it back on the tax roll?” town of Potsdam Taxpayers Association member Newbury E. Meader asked.

Some are still frustrated by last year’s reassessment, which raised assessed property values townwide, and the 2006 referendum that created a special library taxing district.

“It’s not that we object to recreation,” town resident Francis H. Trombly said. “We object to paying for it.”

If the vote fails, the village will be left with an arena it does not want to fund and employees for a program it no longer plans to support.

“I am focused on having the recreation district approved, and moving forward that way,” Mr. Yurgartis said. “If it does get turned down, I think we’ll have to evaluate whether a rec program is desired by people in this community, and if they’re willing to pay for it. Currently there’s no plan B.”

If the measure is approved, the town will take control of all recreation facilities on Jan. 1.

If it fails, it is possible a municipally sponsored recreation program could live on in some form. The town likely will use the $190,000 a year it has always contributed, which typically has been covered by sales tax revenue, to offer a stripped-down program, Mrs. Regan said.

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