By CRAIG FREILICH
POTSDAM – When voters decide whether to create a special town recreation tax district April 10, it could be a precedent-setting resolution to the question of how to fund and manage the recreation program.
But not all town council members are pleased that only property owners – including representatives of corporations based outside of Potsdam – will be able to vote.
Town residents who don’t own property and citizens whose names are not listed on a real estate title -- even if married to a property owner -- won’t be able to vote.
The vote will take place because Potsdam village trustees voted last year to stop funding the joint village-town recreation program, projected to cost $380,000 next year. For years, the village and town have bickered over what each side believes is fair funding of Pine Street Arena, lifeguards at Postwood Park and Pine Street beaches, and the summer recreation and learn-to-swim programs for children including bus transportation.
Potsdam Mayor Steve Yurgartis, who has worked hard to cut village taxes since a vote to abolish the village failed several years ago, believes a town-wide recreation program will result in a better-run department. “We think the program will be better served if managed by a single entity,” Yurgartis said after the board’s 4-0 vote last year.
But the Village of Norwood, while a part of the township, has its own recreation program in partnership with Norwood-Norfolk Central School and does not want be part of the town’s program.
To keep their property owners from being taxed twice for recreation programs, Norwood has to be severed from the recreation district – which is the reason for the vote to create a special recreation tax district that will include the entire town except the village of Norwood.
The vote will take place from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. April 10 at Potsdam Town Hall, 18 Elm St.
It might sound contrary to principles of American suffrage, but to vote in the permissive referendum okaying the new tax district, one must be a property owner and not just a resident of the town. This is not what might be thought of as the usual requirement of residency to vote for, for instance, a school district budget, but the state comptroller’s office has confirmed the property ownership requirement in this case.
Property Ownership Required
Specifically, a voter must be the owner of the property in the town, proof of which would be the name on a real estate title.
If there is more than one name on the title, each of those people can cast a vote. If a landowner owns more than one parcel in the town, he or she gets only one vote. A corporation or partnership owning property is entitled to one vote.
During discussions earlier this year on setting up the district, town officials were first reporting that would be the way the voting would be done, after getting a ruling from the state comptroller’s office, but they had doubts and sought confirmation. The town council received that confirmation from the comptroller’s office of their interpretation of state law for townships and Town Attorney Frank Cappello assented.
But Town Councilor Rosemarie Rivezzi maintains reservations about that provision.
“So should owners of property who don’t even live in Potsdam vote? It just doesn’t seem right,” she said.
“My problem is not having the district. I think not just the property owners but everyone should vote. But the state said we had to follow town law for special districts,” Rivezzi said.
“There’s no precedent for a recreation district,” Rivezzi said.
A permissive referendum is usually required when a municipality wants to establish a water and sewer district, she said. “But a water and sewer district is attached to a house and property, and this is more of a community issue. So should owners of property who don’t even live in Potsdam vote? It just doesn’t seem right.”
But she voted along with all the other town board members present at last week’s meeting to go ahead with the vote.
“I feel there are many benefits to having the rec program under the direction of one government. I feel it can be a far improved program when the budgeting and decision making falls in one place. I’d like to see its scope broaden without increasing costs, offering more varied opportunities for diverse age groups. I think there are new avenues we can consider to make improvements and bring down costs. I really hope those who can vote will support the formation of a recreation district so we can continue to offer this opportunity to the community.
“I still want this to happen. I’m not opposed to the district.” The law is established, she said, and now is not the time to try to change it.
“At some point when I have more time I’ll be asking our state representatives to look at it.”
No Absentee Ballots
Town of Potsdam Supervisor Marie Regan isn’t completely comfortable with the ruling either.
“I don’t want to sound critical of the comptroller. We have to do what the law says and the comptroller says what the law is” in this case, she said.
Regan said the town council has had a one-and-a-half hour session with the St. Lawrence County Board of Elections, who will be helping out by compiling a list of eligible property owners, “and they will help with elections inspectors” who will be at the polls to answer questions.
The Potsdam supervisor said that anyone who insists on voting even if they do not appear to be eligible, “they won’t argue with you. You will fill out an affidavit ballot which will be put in a separate envelope to be checked after the polls close.” If they decide it should count, the vote will be added to the tally. If it won’t be counted, the voter will get a letter saying so.
Another wrinkle is that there will be no absentee ballots, so those who wish to vote, including property owners who don’t live in the town, will have to show up at Town Hall on April 10 if they want to vote.
The resolution on the balloting also set the first year’s budget allocation at $380,000, roughly the operating cost of the program that had been split by the town and village in recent years.
That amount does not include money for any improvements to facilities such as Pine Street Arena.