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Potsdam examines fees for nonprofit services

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POTSDAM - A report written by a SUNY Potsdam senior has provided the village with information about the feasibility of charging nonprofit organizations, like the village’s two colleges and Canton-Potsdam Hospital, fees for fire and police services.

“I learned a lot. This was just background information for me. Obviously, in a place where 70 percent of the property is tax exempt, it’s a very important issue,” Mayor Steven W.. Yurgartis said.

Politics major Emily M. Dickinson, of Harrisville, became an intern working for the village and spent the semester compiling her report. She has already presented her findings to the village board, and the final report will be completed soon.

Under current state law, there is no legal basis for charging nonprofits a fee for their use of fire and police services.

There used to be a New York State law, implemented in 1971 allowing municipalities to charge nonprofits some fees for services, but although it was on the books it was never enacted, and was repealed in the early 1980s.

The law was received a major backlash from nonprofits, and its vague wording made it difficult to implement.

The New York Conference of Mayors has proposed an updated version of a similar law to the state legislature, with little progress so far.

“Obviously it’s going to be a tough uphill battle,” Mr. Yurgartis said.

According to Mr. Yurgartis, police officers and firefighters regularly respond to calls from organizations that pay them no taxes. The fire department must respond to the colleges for every fire alarm, even if the college calls to tell them it is just a false alarm.

“Some of the people that live here are paying for that service, and some of the people that live here are not,” Mr. Yurgartis said.

Other states have various models by which municipalities can receive money from nonprofits.

“I was just surprised to see how in-depth the laws go, and how much the public opinion really plays a role in these kinds of policies,” Ms. Dickinson said.

According to Mr. Yurgartis, the information provided will provide him with the background he needs to form educated opinions on the issue.

“Obviously we’re not the only municipality that’s looking into the problem,” he said.

Ms. Dickinson said the most important thing she learned is that if fees for services are going to be charged, the law must be clearly stated to avoid any confusion or unfairness.

“If the village of Potsdam is going to consider any kind of service charge, to make sure the public is aware of every detail,” she said.

She said an efficient fee-for-service model allows nonprofits to use the services freely for a time, but charges for excessive use.

“It would be a good way to charge people for services they actually use or overuse,” she said.

Both SUNY Potsdam and Clarkson University pay the village water and sewer costs, as well as voluntarily contributing to some village initiatives, like purchasing a new fire truck.

Ms. Dickinson will graduate next month. She plans to receive a graduate degree from North Carolina State University.

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