Tax break for property owners under scrutiny

JOHNSTOWN – Fulton County supervisors have taken the first step toward joining Gloversville in giving commercial property owners a tax break if they convert buildings to mixed residential and commercial use, but not without first encountering resistance from representatives of the towns.

The supervisors’ Finance Committee on Thursday got its first look at the proposed local law and approved a measure that will allow the full Board of Supervisors next week to vote whether to set a public hearing in April.

Under the plan, the county would provide 12 years of tax incentives to county property owners who convert existing commercial buildings to mixed-use buildings with both business and residential space.

The Gloversville Common Council approved a similar law in November. Both would apply to renovations costing more than $10,000 and provide a 100 percent exemption on the taxable amount of improvements for eight years. The exemption then would decrease by 20 percentage points a year until expiring in the 13th year.

Five of Gloversville’s six supervisors attended the meeting and spoke in support of the proposed law, saying it will improve property appearances, revitalize business districts, potentially increase sales tax and ultimately, boost the county’s property-tax revenue.

“This is a vision for down the road, so people invest now to increase our assessments,” said 3rd Ward Supervisor Michael F. Gendron, the only city supervisor on the committee. “This helps every town and city in Fulton County.”

“The language isn’t specified in the law, but I think the intent is to revitalize the business district – the downtown, if you want to call it that. It’ll bring the business districts back,” 5th Ward Supervisor Michael Ponticello said. “It’s not going to be for a guy like me who owns apartments. I’m not going to turn one of my apartments into a coffee shop.”

Town supervisors seemed to have a more cautious approach while the committee debated the proposed law for 30 minutes.

“I think it’s wide open for interpretation,” said Bleecker Supervisor David Howard. “The definitions are really broad. I think it can be abused if it’s not policed properly. I just don’t know enough about it.”

“I could put a one-room real estate office in a 50-unit apartment house and qualify,” said Broadalbin Supervisor Joseph DiGiacomo, who voted against sending the measure to the full board for a public hearing. DiGiacomo said the law would throw off the balance of the tax system, resulting in taxpayers who use the most services paying the least.

“Businesses pay sales tax. They pay property taxes. They don’t use schools and they use little in municipal services,” he said. “Residents use services and now, if we tax-exempt them, they’re going to be using those services and not paying their fair share in taxes,” he said.

“I’m not opposed to it. I just want to understand it better,” said Johnstown 4th Ward Supervisor William Waldron, who chairs the Board of Supervisors. He said he doesn’t expect as much opposition when the measure reaches the full board.

Supervisors could vote on scheduling the public hearing at their March 11 meeting, and the hearing could be scheduled for the April 8 supervisors meeting. The law could be passed that day.

Gloversville’s law was approved in November, but it was not unanimous. 1st Ward Councilwoman Robin Wentworth voted against the law, saying the exemption rate was too high and it would last for too many years.