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Campaigning intensifies as Potsdam Rec vote approaches

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POTSDAM - The vote to create a special recreation taxing district is less than a week away, and advocates for both sides are attempting to stir up interest among sympathetic voters to tip the election in their favor.

The vote will decide whether to create a special taxing district, containing all town property except the village of Norwood, to fund the recreation program. This district would raise $380,000 in its first year, requiring a tax rate of about 80 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

The effort to create a district has been in the works for about a year, since the village voted to drop its 50 percent share of financial support for the recreation program by Jan. 1 2015.

The election will be held from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Potsdam Town Hall, 18 Elm. St. All property owners within the district, including corporations, will be able to vote. Residents who do not own property will not. The rules were mandated by the state comptroller’s office.

Town Supervisor Marie C. Regan said that even though the town has proposed creating the districtit is not advocating either way for next week’s vote. There are pros and cons to both sides, and she said she still has “mixed feelings” concerning whether the creation of a district would be beneficial in the long term.

“We do think rec is important,” she said. “We’re not sure this is the best solution. We’re going to let the people decide.”

The town’s hands are tied by the village’s decision to stop funding the program, she said.

“We’re only doing this because we have to,” she said.

Ms. Regan said she cannot predict which way the vote will go. Public hearings on the subject have been sparsely attended.

Town residents who do not live near Potsdam’s beach or arena and are facing a tax increase to fund services they likely do not use are more likely to vote no. Village residents stand to see their taxes go down and could benefit financially from the creation of a district.

Ms. Regan said a recreation program is important for the quality of life of town residents, and she believes the town could do a better job handling the program by itself without village input.

“For years we’ve had ideas of ways to raise more money. I think we’ve been a thorn in the side for the village,” she said.

By taking control of the program, she said, the town could improve the program and find new ways to cut costs and raise revenues, she said.

However, the new district would also bring new expenses. If the town takes over, its budget will go up by at least $190,000 next year. This is a 5 percent increase, well above the state-mandated 2 percent cap in tax increases.

Additional expenses may follow. Pine Street Arena is aging and in need of repairs. Most recently a compressor broke, which will take at least $30,000 to fix, Ms. Regan said.

“You can’t continue with that kind of dying equipment and deteriorating building,” she said.

Village officials have been advocating for the district for weeks. The village decided to stop funding the program because of concerns it was paying a disproportionate amount of the cost.

“Supporting the district is going to make it a better program, and it’s going to allow the program to be funded fairly, so that everyone shares the cost equally,” Mayor Steven W. Yurgartis said. “I think in our community, quality of life is very important up here, and part of that quality of life is providing recreational opportunities for children.”

Some town residents living outside the village have begun campaigning against the district, saying they are fed up with new taxes.

Some have suggested charging a fee to use the recreation program, or turning it over to a private entity.

“Why can’t they charge a fee for using their facility, or better yet, turn it over to a private entity, put it back on the tax roll?” said Town of Potsdam Taxpayers Association member Newbury E. Meader.

Some are still frustrated by last year’s reassessment, which raised assessed property values townwide, and the 2006 referendum which created a special library taxing district.

“It’s not that we object to recreation. We object to paying for it,” said town resident Francis H. Trombly.

If the vote fails, the village will be left with an arena it does not want to fund and employees for a program no longer plans to support.

“I am focused on having the recreation district approved and moving forward that way,” Mr. Yurgartis said. “If it does get turned down, I think we’ll have to evaluate whether a rec program is desired by people in this community, and if they’re willing to pay for it. Currently there’s no plan B.”

If the vote is approved, the town will take control of all recreation facilities on Jan. 1.

If it fails, it is possible recreation could live on in some form. The town will likely use the $190,000 a year it has always contributed, which has been typically covered by sales tax revenue, to offer a stripped-down program, Ms. Regan said.

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