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Watertown school district first to vote on property tax breaks for housing project

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Watertown City School District Superintendent Terry N. Fralick still has financial concerns about property tax breaks for housing projects.

Even so, the district’s Board of Education will be the first to vote tonight on the framework for a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement for the 305-unit Beaver Meadow Apartments, planned by COR Development Co., Fayetteville. The district, town of Watertown and Jefferson County agreed on the basics of a 10-year PILOT on Thursday, but have not finalized the details or laid them out for the public.

“The board was aware of the provisions, but there was never any full board discussion about it,” said Mr. Fralick. “The concerns are always there in this economic climate.”

The jurisdictions are meeting this afternoon to finalize details and have language written by attorneys on the PILOT, so the district hopes to know its share of PILOT payments before the board votes. Mr. Fralick does not know which way the board will vote, he said. The board meets at 7 at the district offices.

The taxing jurisdictions have felt tremendous pressure from Fort Drum-related organizations to move quickly on the PILOT, which is one reason for the vote to come tonight, perhaps before the board has all of the details.

“We need to have some answers for the Army as quickly as possible,” said Donald C. Alexander, CEO of the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency, which is the vehicle for PILOT negotiations in the county. “There are deliberations ongoing that could affect the size and structure of what’s going on at Fort Drum.”

The only detail about the agreement that representatives of the jurisdiction would share on Monday is that the PILOT would have a 10-year term.

Mr. Alexander had not heard on Monday that the school board planned to vote on the PILOT so quickly. Normally, representatives from the taxing jurisdictions would sit with the lawyers and get a draft on paper, which the representatives would read to make sure it matched their understanding of what the verbal agreement was. Then, using the reviewed draft, the elected bodies from each jurisdiction would vote on the agreement, plus the distribution of the PILOT proceeds and other particulars.

“The problem is, I guess, timing and the holidays,” Mr. Alexander said. “Everyone has agreed in principle.”

The school district has voiced concerns about its own declining revenue, from cuts to state aid, and expectations of more students.

Mr. Fralick said the Army informed several towns surrounding Fort Drum that there will be an influx of families arriving in the next three to four years.

“The Army’s been pretty clear,” said Mr. Fralick. “They need 1,100 more housing units.”

Previously, Mr. Fralick expressed concerns about the cost of additional bus runs, which could run up to $90,000 per bus. The COR Development project is expected to bring 296 military-related students to this district alone, based on the Army’s formula that allows a bedroom for every child.

The current bus runs on Coffeen Street, Arsenal Street and Floral Drive are nearly at capacity now. When the run reaches capacity, the district will need to buy a new bus. In addition, more kids means bigger classrooms and expansions that would affect next year’s budget. The elementary schools are already tight at 25-30 students per classroom.

“We’re constricting ourselves with what we can do with less resources. It makes our job more difficult,” said Mr. Fralick in a previous interview.

The board hired a lawyer with experience in school district PILOTs to help it understand the agreement.

The Watertown Town Council will consider the PILOT at its regular meeting, 7 p.m. Thursday at town offices, only if the draft PILOT is available for review, Supervisor Joel R. Bartlett said.

“It’s my hope that we will have the documents in hand so we can act on the PILOT as agreed to,” he said. “There has been a lot of pressure from all areas. We are moving as fast as we can, understanding that there are many elected officials who have to sign off on it and we all need to do our due diligence.”

Details won’t be written in time for Jefferson County’s Board of Legislators to consider the PILOT as part of its committee process, County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III said. It could consider the PILOT at the next full board meeting, 2 p.m. Dec. 13 in the board’s chambers, 195 Arsenal St., after waiving rules requiring the committee process.

“I don’t envision being able to take anything to the Finance and Rules Committee tomorrow night,” Mr. Hagemann said Monday. “When we do a PILOT resolution, it’s usually pretty detailed, explaining the partners and what the details are. It’s all-inclusive and, though we know the framework, it’s just got to get written.”

And the jurisdictions all know that as soon as one is settled, they will immediately begin negotiating a second housing PILOT. In the Tuesday afternoon meeting, the jurisdictions will begin discussing a PILOT for Morgan Management, Pittsford, and its 394-unit Morgan Townhouses off County Route 202, Mr. Alexander said, after the details on the COR PILOT are recorded.

The quick action by the school district shows the taxing jurisdictions all understand the need for speed on this issue.

“We’re all under the gun here,” he said.

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