(Ed.'s note: Bob Hogan will be writing a follow-up story to this one. He is seeking input from local businesses, or business leaders, please contact him at the Port News at 270 Main Street, or fax him at 767-0036 or email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The dilemma of the reassessment of commercial properties combined with what some have termed an out-of-control school board is having a devastating effect on commercial interests in Port Washington. As the impact settles in on Port business, there is a commonly shared opinion that the worst is yet to come as the increased costs of rising assessments and continuous increase in school taxes afflict an ever-shrinking commercial property base.
Just a sampling of some of the vacant commercial properties in Port Washington.
Steve Latham, the president of the Port Washington Business Improvement District (BID), said there was a mobilization under way in the business community to deal with the devastating tax increases resulting from the reassessment and its linkage to ever-increasing school taxes. These added costs are complicated by a faceless Nassau County bureaucracy, which is delaying appeals and creating uncertainty in the business community. Latham questioned one facet of the reassessment held out at the inception of the project: that some would pay more and some less, but the total tax collected in the community would remain the same. To date, he has not heard of one business whose tax burden was reduced. On the contrary, every business that has commented said their taxes were increased and most said, increased substantially. Citing the school tax, Latham said there was a lack of appreciation for the fact that, although businesses pay three times the tax paid by residents, business has no voice in the decisions of the school board.
Roy Smithheimer, executive director of the BID since its inception in 1996, said the BID is well aware that the reassessment/school tax burdens are putting Port businesses at a competitive disadvantage with other neighboring communities. A prime example is emerging vividly on Shore Rd. where one of Port's major business expansions is nearing completion in the shopping center anchored by the Stop-and-Shop. Smithheimer said that to date, there are no other businesses, other than the Stop-and-Shop, which have signed leases in the new complex. Smithheimer said the reassessment question was difficult to discuss at a recent meeting of the BID because many businesses have not heard from the County on appeals filed last year. BID members were asking how they were expected to join the upbeat national up tick in business and hire more employees when many were taking loans to cover their taxes.
Latham and Smithheimer both feel that Port business will soon mobilize to challenge the rationale and fairness of the reassessment and the subsequent increases to be paid to the various taxing authorities in Port.
Among the strongest criticism came from Guy LaMotta, who has operated the Manhasset Bay Marina for over 40 years. He too linked the reassessment with school taxes and questioned the wisdom and common sense of prior school boards that shut down the school on Main St. only to come back years later and request a multi-million dollar bond issue to build a new one. LaMotta labeled the school board's voracious appetite for funds as out of control and which, in tandem with the reassessment, has caused employers such as Thompson Industries to leave Port.
LaMotta is particularly outspoken over the method used to allocate the school tax between residential and business properties. The tax scheme at present calls for approximate allocations of 20 percent of the school budget to be paid by business, 73 percent by residential properties and the remaining 7 percent by various other interests. These percentages are not subject to change regardless of the alterations that occur in the commercial/residential mix. LaMotta cited the fact that the 1,500 commercial properties in Port in 2003 have been reduced to approximately 1,000 in 2004. When the Thypin Steel property and the major construction of over 200 senior residences in Port are built he rhetorically asked who would assume the burden when these major properties convert from commercial to residential. His answer: the businesses that remain. LaMotta echoed the opinion of the BID on the lack of representation in the decisions of the school board.
He cautioned residents inclined to take an us-against-them outlook on businesses should recognize that much of the increase in taxes will be passed on to consumers. He spoke of the beauty of the boating community in Port and the inclination of many marina operators to flee from the tax burden and to sell out to developers building high-cost waterfront housing. In closing, LaMotta labeled the increase in taxes as a form of "de facto condemnation" of Port businesses.
Bob Harding of Robert L. Harding Real Estate had mixed reviews on reassessment. Residential reassessments generally seemed equitable but commercial reassessments were inconsistent and introduced a measure of fiscal doubt in commercial sales and rentals. As a result, Harding is now adding a real estate tax increase pass through provision in commercial rentals. Generally he said, the sales market remains strong but the rental market is 'the pits.' Harding echoed the criticism over school taxes labeling the school board a body that does what it wants and the staff of the school system as overpaid.
The reassessment of both commercial and residential properties has jarred much of Port Washington and may take years of adjustment before being fully accepted. From a business viewpoint, reassessment has certainly renewed the severe criticism of the tax increases emanating from the school board. As businesses readjust, for the future, the cost of living in Port may well increase as the burden of these taxes is passed on to the consumer. For the present, the people of Port may well ponder the quality of life in the coming years as they pass signage, which may herald the future, the 'for rent' signs on Main St., Shore Rd. and Port Blvd.