Editor, The Spotlight,
Back in February, the Bethlehem Town Board agreed to an open space program with the stated assurance that no-one would be forced to sell their land. Advocating, Supervisor Clarkson said, “we will never go beyond willing landowners, that’s just not going to happen.” In the face of his assurances, landowners still worried; one voiced her concern about the “slippery slope” that would result in landowners having to sell their property.
Today, those “slippery slope” concerns are coming home to roost. As a result of steps taken over the past 18 months by the Supervisor and the Town Board, unwilling landowners are finding they have no option but sell the open spaces they have owned and tended for decades. First, when the Town’s property reassessment resulted in improbable valuations, property tax bills made continued ownership unsustainable. Second, and in response to this re-assessment snafu, Supervisor Clarkson authored a new conservation easement law that would offer property tax relief to landowners who agreed to give up property rights. Overall, having imposed taxes that make ownership infeasible, the Town wants to use tax receipts to purchase these distressed properties.
On Wednesday, Dec. 3, Supervisor Clarkson upped the stakes with his appeal to the Bethlehem Central District School Board for support of his regulatory seizure scheme. Under his new plan, the Bethlehem School District would provide tax breaks to landowners who surrender their property rights to the Town of Bethlehem. The practical result would be that homeowners and businesses could face significant tax increases. According to numbers prepared by the District, this program, taken together with other easements under consideration, could result in additional taxes of as much $93 for an average $250,000 home. No estimate was provided for how this would affect business owners in Bethlehem.
In his presentation, Supervisor Clarkson defended his proposed tax increases saying, alternately: that the tax increases would merely offset the tax decreases residents enjoyed as a result of his 2013 property re-assessment; that there would most likely be little participation by landowners in his proposed plan; and, referring to 10-year-old survey statistics, that there is/was seemingly broad support among Town residents for his plan to raise school taxes in 2015.
But in saying these things Mr. Clarkson raised many questions. Among them, how does his tax re-distribution plan comport with his insistence, in 2013, that we needed a town-wide reassessment to achieve tax fairness? We might ask how his proposed tax levy would impact those homeowners who, this year, experienced tax increases as a result of the re-assessment. We might wonder why he would support a tax give-way program when he expects few, if any, to participate. And we might ask why we should go along with a proposal that is clearly designed to create inequity among taxpayers, while aggravating for many the arduous tax problems he created with his re-assessment plan.
The Bethlehem school board will hold a public hearing on this matter on Wednesday, Dec. 17, where, with your support, many of these questions will be examined. Please attend and participate. Let’s make sure that our elected representatives on the School Board act independently and in the best interests of the District, while they consider these questions and the Supervisor’s conservation tax easement program.
Dan Cunningham, Delmar