Governor's office looking at watershed tax debate

By Jay Braman Jr.
It was a feel-good evening Tuesday in Margaretville at the headquarters of the Catskill Watershed Corporation.
Many local mover and shakers joined with New York City counterparts, both current and former, to congratulate the CWC’s longstanding president, Perry Shelton, who was retiring that night from the position and from his tenure as founding father of the movement to protect the watershed region when the trouble began back in the early 1990s.
Many took turns lauding the 90-plus-year-old Shelton, who was born in the Ozarks and ended up in Trout Creek, but the humble statesman kept deflecting the attention away from his contribution to the end result of that battle, the creation of the CWC and of a multi-million dollar host of programs benefiting upstaters, by noting that the end result was achieved by a much larger group of talent, both from the city and from upstate, with many others, like environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., in between.
But it was toward the end of the casual ceremony when it became clear that although much had been accomplished, there was still more to be done. James Tierney, former State Watershed Inspector General and currently a Deputy Commissioner at the State Department of Environmental Conservation, recalled Shelton’s homespun influence over the issues of days gone by, and assured the man himself that the partnership he helped forge between the city and upstate was in good hands as the struggles of that partnership change with the times.
The significance of those words rang crystal clear when Tierney announced that the governor’s office has stepped in to help solve what many in the room considered to be the most pressing upstate/downstate issue of today: the financially crippling challenges the city has launched against local assessments of city lands in towns throughout the region.
The City of New York this month agreed to settle a long and costly legal battle with the Town of Olive over the assessed values of the city’s vast holdings in that town. As a result of the deal, the city’s property will be assessed at $550 million, much to the delight of Olive taxpayers.
During the legal battle, city attorneys claimed the property, which includes the Ashokan Reservoir, was valued at only $115 million as opposed to Olive’s assertion that it was worth $600 million. Olive officials shuddered at the notion when the city first challenged the assessment seven years ago because the city pays over half the property taxes in the town. Had the city won the battle, the rest of the town’s taxpayers would have been required to pick up the slack.
Under the settlement the city and the town agree to assessed values for the next 10 years.
The property will be worth $550 million now though 2010. The value goes up to $560 million in 2011, $570 million in 2012, $580 million in 2013, $590 million in 2014-2015 and $600 million for 2016 and 2017.
Another major win for Olive, the Onteora School District and Ulster County, which were also joined in the case, is that none will be required to pay back over $20 million the city argued it was due in back tax payments its lawyers claimed were unfair.
The CWC has a special account to pay such costs for tax assessment challenges made by the city against municipalities within the city’s watershed region, a vast territory covering parts of Ulster, Greene, Delaware, Schoharie and Sullivan counties. Although there are still 10 different challenges pending in other communities, Olive’s battle had nearly depleted that account.
CWC Executive Director Alan Rosa has been warning watershed dwellers for over a year that the tax issue must be resolved because the city has the resources to go far through the legal system while the upstate towns will go broke in the fight. At Monday’s meeting he spoke with optimism about the talks under the governor’s office, which began in January, and said that he felt the discussions to date played a role in the settlement reached this month with Olive.
Rosa and other watershed representatives insisted Monday that the talks were totally confidential, much in the same way the talks were back in the 1990s when he, Shelton, and a host of other local representatives met under former Governor George Pataki to reach the deal they all signed in 1997 called the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA).
Rosa did say he hoped that all the outstanding land assessment issues in the watershed would be resolved within a year as a result of the talks.
Among those praising Shelton, the long-time Supervisor of the Town of Tompkins, was Emily Lloyd, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and a fellow CWC board member. With Deputy Commissioner Paul Rush, Lloyd presented the retiring Shelton with a framed proclamation from the DEP congratulating him on his “distinguished record of service to the wider watershed community. In his demeanor and actions he has been a true gentleman and has shown great wisdom in his guidance of the Catskill Watershed Corporation.”
CWC Executive Director Alan Rosa presented Shelton with a travel gift certificate from the board, and with a plaque from CWC staff which will hang in the board room in tribute to his leadership, not only of the CWC, but of the Coalition of Watershed Towns (CWT), which he chaired from 1991 to 1997. Several Coalition colleagues were in attendance to laud his honesty and dedication to the well-being of Watershed residents during the tense years of negotiations preceding the signing of the NYC Watershed Memorandum of Agreement (MOA).