Tonawanda News

February 5, 2014

CONFER: NYS could soon tax the Scouts

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — These are interesting times in New York, as we have a governor and a state legislature touting various reform packages that are expected to drop some tax rates after years of steady tax growth. It comes at a time when those same parties are testing the waters for even more public services such as universal pre-kindergarten. 

Decreased revenues and increased costs — they can’t exist concurrently. So, to make good on all their promises, state officials have been looking at some alternative sources through which to acquire capital. They are now in the developmental stages of allowing local jurisdictions to collect taxes from some properties owned by non-profits.

Long-held state law has said that such lands are off-limits to property and school taxes. This was put into place because legislators believed at the time — and rightly so — that there was a trade-off of pricey revenues versus priceless benefit: Non-profits provide more to the community than what could ever be gleaned from the taxes they would pay.

The language of the potential replacement concept, one being developed by members of the governor’s tax commission in conjunction with the Legislature, would cap the number of acres that could be considered tax exempt at 400 acres per organization.

It’s a take-off on a bill that was run through both houses in recent years. The old version focused solely on all unimproved properties held by non-profits. The thinking was that property is being used by those organizations only if it supports facilities and other improvements.

That bill was once passed by the Senate but never made it out of committee in the Assembly. The Assembly turned it down because it would affect thousands of non-profits across the state, including those comparable to Habitat for Humanity that might hold 20 unimproved lots in a city all awaiting construction. Had the bill passed, all of those properties would have been taxed.

The new iteration of the bill makes change more palatable to the dissenting legislators because the 400-acre threshold would exclude most all non-profits and would instead affect only those dozens that hold massive amounts of property, such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and similar groups who need to manage that amount of land in order to offer a quality summer camp program.

Consider the local scout council of which I am president. We own Camp Dittmer (for Boy Scouts) and Camp Sam Wood (for Cub Scouts). Between the two facilities, the council owns over 700 acres of land. We could end up paying taxes on more than 300 acres that were previously tax-free.

It’s the kind of thing that keeps me up at night, because where exactly would we find the money to pay the taxes? Any non-profit will tell you that many funding sources have shrunk or dried up completely because of the moribund economy.

Because of this anticipated change in public policy, many kids will be unable to savor the outdoors because of the financial burden that the new tax will place on their organizations. When a camp is taxed the cost will have to be passed on to the customers. Considering that many camps see only a few hundred visitors per summer and the property taxes will exceed thousands of dollars annually (especially if it is prime lakeside real estate like Camp Dittmer) each attendee will pay a substantial addition to the cost of his or her vacation. This will prove to be the breaking point, the fee that causes many lower-income families to say “no” to a week of camp for their kid; many of them can barely pull it off now. That chain of events will force many scout councils to get out of the summer camp business and sell off their unique properties.

Passage can be stopped, though, with public action. If you value what you did at summer camp as a child and want your kids – and many others – to create similar memories and friendships and learn similar lessons, please take the time add your voice to the debate and point out the many flaws of this new tax to your senator or assemblyperson.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.