Property-tax exemptions raise ire in town

Lo Hud, New York's Lower Hudson Valley/April 13, 2009

Rampo - Outcries against property-tax exemptions have long been leveled by some residents against in-house places of worship in Monsey.

The bulk of the town's tax exemptions, though, aren't connected to the Orthodox Jewish community, and aren't hidden from view.

Public school districts, hospitals and property owned by government or service organizations make up the bulk, as well as property owned by myriad religious groups.

Interest in the subject was recently sparked anew by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society's purchase of 248 acres in western Ramapo.

Expectations were that the site off Sterling Mine Road would become a residential community for people over 55; a boon of sorts that would generate taxes without adding children to local schools.

While representatives of the Jehovah's Witnesses said no children would live there, concern remains that another property was poised for removal from the tax roll.

The former owner, Lorterdan Properties at Ramapo, paid $400,000 in property taxes last year.

Preceding the sale to the Jehovah's Witnesses, Pulte Homes of New York was to buy the property for $46.7 million, but that apparently dissolved in a contractual dispute with Lorterdan.

Besides being upset that taxable property could be lost, Theresa Davis, who lives near the property, felt that zoning for single-family homes, like ones in her neighborhood, was more appropriate.

"The biggest slap in the face is that they can do what they want," she said, "and we have to pay for it."

Ramapo assessor Scott Shedler said it was not determined what Watchtower would pay or not pay.

"What the Jehovah's actually bought were 292 approved building lots," Shedler said.

Based on the $11.5 million purchase price, the property taxes would be about $300,000 for the year.

Watchtower applied on Feb. 27 to be wholly exempt from those taxes, but the extent to which the town will comply depends on the use of buildings for religious purposes.

Assessors follow state regulations to decide on exemption requests, and exempted properties are reviewed for continued compliance.

"We have a random checking process," Shedler said of a procedure due to occur this week, "so no one can say we picked them out because of their name or assessment."

Last year, Ramapo denied 125 applications for tax exemptions, including 96 seeking wholly exempt status.

Assessors must decide on exemption requests by May 1 when the tentative assessment rolls are published.

Exemptions not secret

A state law effective late last year requires municipalities and school districts to include tax-exemption data in their preliminary budgets.

"It's expected that this law will provide increased transparency to taxpayers in regard to the amount and impact of exemptions on the local tax base," Lee Kyriacou, executive director of the state Office of Real Property Services, wrote to the municipalities.

Although exemptions can have valid purposes, such as separation of church and state, as well as the providing of human services, Kyriacou noted that "they also erode the tax base and shift the tax burden to other property owners within the taxing district."

The law is an inclusive directive, requiring a breakdown of all exemptions, ranging from larger ones for institutions to smaller ones for individual homeowners.

Town exemptions

The number of wholly tax-exempt Ramapo properties was 20 percent last year of an assessment roll totaling $2,028,811,078.

That's the most among Rockland County's three largest towns. In Clarkstown, 8.27 percent of the roll was wholly exempt. The figure was 14 percent in Orangetown.

"When we do our budget," Ramapo town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence said, "we do it on the taxable value, the tax base." He said the town must follow state regulations governing tax exemptions, and "in a world where the state didn't allow exemptions, people's taxes would be spread over a larger tax base."

Rockland Community College is among Ramapo's largest exemptions. It has a $30 million assessment, but is 99 percent exempt from $6 million of taxes. Another is Good Samaritan Hospital. It is 93 percent exempt from a $4.3 million tax bill.

Likewise, the county Dr. Robert L. Yeager Health Center's $19.98 million assessment is 99.5 percent exempt, and the county Fire Training Center's $3.3 million assessment is 95 percent exempt.

More than just taxes

The Watchtower's plans include office, worship and residential buildings, as well as centralized dining, laundry, infirmary and maintenance services.

Watchtower spokesman Richard Devine said the plans would consume 50 percent less property than Lorterdan's development and that there would be less traffic because residents would work there.

A preliminary plan submitted to the town indicated Watchtower's willingness to donate to the fire district for equipment purchases.

Sloatsburg Mayor Carl Wright, whose village is just beyond the site, saw pluses and minuses in its development.

"There's no question we'd like the area to remain in its natural state," Wright said. "And this will obviously be off the tax rolls. On the other hand, they won't be sending children to the schools, and the traffic will be less. Would they be good neighbors? Yes. I'd assume they'd be excellent neighbors."

George Hoehmann, chief operating officer of Camp Venture, a nonprofit agency serving developmentally disabled people, said his and other tax-exempt groups provided employment that generated other revenues for businesses and government.

Camp Venture has a $33 million budget and 600 employees for facilities, including eight tax-exempt group residences in Bardonia, Congers, Nanuet, New City and Valley Cottage.

"Even though we don't pay property taxes, we employ people who are spending within the community, more than 2,000 people employed by three not-for-profits," Hoehmann said, including the Clarkstown facilities of ARC and Jawonio.

Paying property taxes, he said, "would be a real hit on the level of services that we could provide."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.