Some Helderberg Lake residents oppose petition that would create special tax district

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
 Some residents of Helderberg Lake are upset about a proposal to create a special tax district there for the purpose of funding dam repairs.

BERNE — A proposal for the town of Berne to create a special tax district around Helderberg Lake to repair the high-hazard dam there is opposed by a handful of lake residents who aired their grievances at a packed public hearing.

The  Dec. 1 hearing was hosted by the town board, which will eventually decide whether to accept the Helderberg Lake Community Association’s proposal and grant the association a loan for the project.

The dam needs a variety of repairs and upgrades — from an extension of the core wall to the sealing of cracks — that will cost about $445,000, according to a pair of engineers from Prime AE Group, the firm contracted by HLCA. They said that the alternative to repairs is to remove the dam, which would cost about $424,000, but would also turn the lake into a wetland, which, according to HLCA President Tom McQuade, would in turn lower property values.

According to state law, because the Helderberg Lake Dam is high-hazard, failure “may result in widespread or serious damage to home(s); damage to main highways, industrial or commercial buildings, railroads and/or other important utilities, including water supply, sewage treatment, fuel, power, cable, or telephone infrastructures; or substantial environmental damage; such that the loss of human life or widespread economic loss is likely.”

Plans for repair were submitted to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which provided feedback the day before the public hearing. The engineers said that the comments addressed “minor issues,” and that they expected that DEC approval would be granted early next year, with a construction permit.

A permit would also be required from the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which, the Prime engineers said, “has indicated that they intend to authorize” the project.

The engineers said they think the construction can be done by next summer.

Supervisor Sean Lyons said during the Dec. 1 public hearing that the board would reconvene to discuss the matter on Dec. 22, and that comments would still be accepted in a written format before that meeting for consideration by the board. 

Lyons told The Enterprise this week that he does not think the board will be ready to vote on the issue at that time, saying, “There are lots of questions that need answers before any decision can be made.”

 

The petition

The HLCA submitted a petition to the town board to create the tax district for the repairs, so that residents would essentially be paying the town back over 30 years at a 4-percent interest rate for the repair funds. Success of this proposal as it stands would leave the 73 properties in the district to pay an additional tax of $5.35 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

The range of the tax increases to those properties is broad, stretching from $4.80 per year to $1,176.50 per year, according to Enterprise calculations based on data included in the petition. The median yearly payment would be about $481, while the mean would be about $472. 

The petition received 52 signatures out of 73 property owners, which represents a share of around 71 percent favoring the proposal. There were 28 owners who did not sign, though there were some multiple-property owners who signed for one property but not all of them. The majority of those owners, though, did sign more than once. 

For instance, the HLCA owns three properties and signed three times. McQuade owns four properties on the lake and signed for three of them, while the other property was represented by a co-owner, Susan Mendleson III, who also signed for an additional property. 

Of the 13 multiple-property owners, 11 signed the petition more than once, with most giving one additional signature. Everyone who owns more than one property signed at least once.  

The number of unique property owners who signed is 41, which, over the total number of properties, still represents around 56 percent of the population there. 

In terms of property value, those who signed represent about $4,429,086 — or 69 percent — of the district’s value, which sits at $6,440,876. 

Residents who live on the lake full-time — 38 percent of the population — were less likely to sign than residents who have not designated their lake properties as “primary residences.” Sixty-one percent of primary residents signed the petition, while 78 percent of secondary residents signed it. 

There’s no obvious relationship between property value and willingness to sign. Seventy percent of the owners of the top-10 most valuable properties signed the petition; 80 percent of the owners of the bottom 10 also signed.

 

Those opposed

Those who spoke out against the project at the public hearing — about nine people, representing the interests of the additional 17 or so who did not sign the petition — gave various reasons for their opposition, though all agreed that the proposal was inherently unfair in some way. 

Some residents, like Liz Smith, owner of the most expensive property within the proposed district, argued that those who have lake frontage — meaning their property extends into the lake itself — should pay a higher rate than residents who have only lake access, since those with lake frontage have, essentially, more opportunity to use the lake than those who are relegated to the beach area, which has limited hours and no bathrooms or cooking facilities. 

Eleven properties in the district have lake frontage, and all but one of the owners of those properties signed the petition. The properties with lake frontage do not represent the most valuable homes in the district — the highest assessed value is $140,000 and is only the 12th most valuable in the district. The lake-front property with the lowest value, meanwhile, is assessed at $65,000, and is the 53rd most valuable property in the district. 

Smith, who would be paying an additional $1,176.47 per year, by Enterprise calculations, said that, although she has lake rights, the nearest access point is two miles away from her property, and that access is through Helderberg Lake-owned rights-of-way, which she worried might be removed in the future, thereby nullifying the rights listed in her deed. 

“In recent years, Helderberg Lake took away one of those access points,” Smith said. “What guarantee do we have that the rest of the right-of-ways will not be removed? And will the construction have a negative impact on these access points?” 

She also said that the lake association has threatened to remove the rights of those who do not pay dues to the association, and asked, “How can we be taxed on a lake we have no rights to?” 

The Helderberg Lake Community Association could not be reached for comment. 

A common refrain was that the HLCA should have pursued other funding options before deciding to propose a tax district.

“We are not opposed to a tax district as a supplemental funding source to repair the dam, but we disagree with the way it is currently proposed,” said resident Jean Horn, speaking for herself and her husband, Mark. They would pay approximately $669 yearly in additional taxes on their property.

“The HSCA has known for approximately 10 years that the dam repairs were needed, but, to the best of our knowledge, took no significant steps to invest in repairs or secure funding until approximately 2019,” Horn said. She said that she had volunteered to apply for a grant through New York State on behalf of the association, but that the association was not eligible because it doesn’t have not-for-profit designation. 

“In an effort to raise money to fund the repairs,” Horn went on, “various HLCA members have suggested alternate ways, for example the sale of HLCA land in an effort to eliminate or reduce the amount of the tax district bond. Unfortunately, these ideas were not put to a membership vote, despite several requests to do so.”

Elaborating on Smith’s concern about those who don’t pay dues losing their lake rights, Horn said that “several property owners” have stopped paying dues because of concerns about “mismanagement” of the association. 

“In our opinion,” Horn said, “this proposal would have met less opposition had the HLCA pursued various funding sources as suggested by the membership to offset the tax district, in addition to using a tiered-benefit or flat-rate tax.”

Resident Kathie Bruso, who would be paying an additional $992.43 per year, laid out her experience living two miles away from a lake-access point by car.

“Lake rights, in and of itself, does not provide equal benefits [as lake frontage],” Bruso said. “We are not members of the Helderberg Lake Community Association. As [her husband] said, we own a camp on a different lake and go there from May through October. We have not used Helderberg Lake in over 10 years and will never use it in the future. Yet, we’re always willing to donate to the repair of the dam.”

However, she argued, “Lakefront properties have more benefits available to them … such as 24-hour lake access from their own properties, bathrooms, and the ability to cook and eat while on the lake. We have to drive two miles to use the beach, consisting of a grassy strip of land with limited hours of use, no bathroom, parking, or any of the other amenities provided by lakefront properties.”

Bruso also said that selling the property may be difficult with the additional levy. 

Janice Parrott said that her interaction with a man going around trying to solicit signatures made her wary of how on top of the issue the association was, since the questions she had did not yield “reasonable” responses.

She said that the man came to her house and “spoke of the dam in dire need of repair. My very first response to him was to ask if the lake association had contacted the [Department of Environmental Conservation], the federal government, or New York State for any kind of grant money. He had no answer. In fact, he looked rather surprised that I would even ask that. … The next thing I asked, of course, was how much are we talking about? Again, he had no reasonable answer. He just asked, ‘Well, don’t we want to save the lake?’ Well, of course we do, but at what cost? He really had no idea about the repair and threw out some vague numbers, anywhere from $300,000 to $500,000.

“When we pressed for how much our taxes would go up,” Parrott continued, “he said, ‘Well, we have no idea. Could be $200 or $300. Could be $10,000. We have no way of knowing.’ My husband and I were fairly incredulous that someone you don’t know, had never met before, would expect us to sign this petition to raise our taxes for an undetermined amount of time, and an undetermined amount of money. Why would anyone do that?”

Parrott said that she, like others, had not used the lake in years and criticized the inequity between those who have lake frontage and those who are only able to use the beach. She also laid out her family’s financial condition, which factors in medical issues and an imminent retirement. 

“I’m on Social Security, my husband is retiring in a few years, I had surgery in both eyes, my husband needs knee surgery — my problems, not yours — but all of a sudden I’m expected to pay upwards of $1,000 a year for the rest of my life? And then my heirs are going to have to pay this tax.” 

The concerns of other speakers opposed to the tax district largely conformed to those brought up by Bruso, Smith, Horn, Parrott. 

 

Those in favor

Although supporters of the district make up a majority of lake residents, only five people spoke in favor of it at the meeting, each striking a similar note: Like it or not, it has to be done. 

Resident Josh Weinstock, whose taxes would go up $885.42, said that he bought his property on the lake six months ago, and argued that no homeowner there should feel that the burden of repairing the dam is unfair. 

“The first thing we did when we bought our house was to check the title and make sure we did have lake rights,” Weinstock said. “That was very important to us … So we knew what we were getting into. We also knew that the lake had dam issues, and we knew that there was going to be a cost associated with it. And there’s a cost to living on a lake. It’s not free, unfortunately … You can’t live on a lake and not expect to have to do repairs and things like that. 

“Unfortunately, this [dam repair] came up on our watch, but we’re stewards of the lake, and the land, and the house, and this is the cost we have to bear, and I’m just accepting it,” he concluded.

One resident, whose name could not be heard clearly, asked why those who are opposed to the tax district live near the lake in the first place.

“I’m in favor of the tax district because I want the financial burden distributed among the people that enjoy the lake,” the resident said, adding that she’s sorry for those who spoke about not using the lake for many years. “Why are you there? I’m sorry, but if you have on your deed that you have lake rights and you’re in the district — you pay taxes for the fire department too. You might never have a fire but you still pay taxes. The lake is there for you. If you don’t like it, I’m sorry. If it’s too far for you to drive, I’m sorry.”

Resident Sandra Anderson, who would pay an additional $564.43 per year under the proposal, said that the cost is worth keeping the lake residents and association from being liable for any damages that might be incurred in the event of a dam failure, which, by the nature of its “high-hazard” classification, would likely be substantial. She said that the tax district is a “reasonable and fair and best solution.” 

 

Board view

Supervisor Lyons told The Enterprise that the pertinent topics for the board “include verifying signatures, assessing to ensure benefits are equal and fair for all those in the proposed district, and that the proper homes are included/excluded in the district as each case may be.”

“The residents who spoke against the tax district (not necessarily against the dam improvements) seemed to be more prepared as to why they were against the district in regards to the district’s formation and inclusions compared to those who were in favor of it,” he also said. “The continuation of the public hearing will hopefully answer these questions and probably raise more. I am not sure anyone can be prepared for a vote on Dec. 22 and I think the new fully-seated Berne Town Board should make this decision [in] 2022. It is far too important for many, many residents for this outgoing board to make, [in] my opinion.”

The new board will be made up of Deputy Supervisor Dennis Palow, who will be sworn in as supervisor and was present for the hearing; Councilman Leo Vane, who was at the hearing; Thomas Doolin, who was not seen in the audience; and town clerk Anita Clayton, who was at the hearing in that capacity. A fifth board member is expected to be appointed to fill a vacancy that was created too late to be filled by this year’s election. 

Lyons, who did not seek re-election, will not return next year, nor will Councilmember Joel Willsey, who was not at the public hearing but had earlier expressed concerns about the proposal. 

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