Union College’s payments to the city — or lack thereof — have become a campaign issue.
Acting Mayor Gary McCarthy is accusing his opponent, Roger Hull, of actively damaging the city’s tax base while running Union College. He calculated that Hull cost the city $8 million of its tax base during his years at Union.
Hull, who was president of Union for 15 years before creating his own party to challenge the Democrats in city office, fought back with his own calculations.
He said Union paid for $5 million of city expenses during his administration, mainly to demolish derelict buildings near the college.
“It was things the city would have to do,” Hull said.
But McCarthy said college officials only wanted to improve the college’s image.
“No matter how you structure it, the college was acting only in the narrow interests of the college,” he said.
While a few buildings were demolished, many others were converted into student housing and college offices. In total, the college took $8 million off of Schenectady’s tax roll by turning much of its surroundings into tax-exempt property.
Hull acknowledged that Union renovated the neighborhood around the college because it would help Union.
“Any institution that does anything does it because it’s beneficial to it. Clearly what we did in the Seward Place area was beneficial to the college,” Hull said. “I did it because I believed it was right for the college and the city.”
McCarthy disputed that, noting that Hull’s list included spending $1.3 million to build soccer fields. Those are open to the public for a fee. Union also put in $15,000 to restore a Central Park ballfield in return for an agreement that Union players got first dibs on using the field.
“They only seem to count as [payment in lieu of taxes] when you’re running for mayor. At the time, it was represented as the college just wanted to use the field,” McCarthy said. “It’s a position of political convenience.”
Hull issued a news release to detail what Union had done for the city and how much each item had cost.
Like all nonprofits, Union also pays sewer and water fees.
In calculating what he termed a $5 million PILOT, he included demolition, but not renovation of buildings used solely for students or college offices. “It was not appropriate to count [those] in there as a PILOT, something that had no benefit directly to the city,” Hull said. “I wanted to be fair.”
He included about $1.6 million in demolitions, $1.4 million for buying and cleaning up a brownfield, $1.3 million for athletic fields and $500,000 for buying and renovating the Kenny Center, at the corner of Park Place and Nott Street, which is Union’s headquarters for students who volunteer in the community and includes after-school homework help and mentoring for neighborhood children.
“Everything on the list, with the exception of the soccer field, is something the city at some point would have to do,” Hull said.
Not included on the list are the properties that became tax-exempt after Union bought them.
McCarthy has hammered Hull on that point, saying that Hull reduced the city’s tax base when he could’ve used a state program to keep the city whole.
Hull could have put the Ramada Inn, which the college converted to student housing, into the Empire Zone program, McCarthy said. The state program would have allowed the city to collect taxes — paid by the state — while still allowing Union to convert the inn, McCarthy said.
Hull disputed that, saying the Empire Zone wasn’t available for residential projects. However, state economic development officials said the dorm project could have been structured for Empire Zone benefits if Union College had chosen to do so.
McCarthy said he personally asked Hull to use the Empire Zone program so the city wouldn’t lose a valuable source of taxes.
“I was in [the city’s Industrial Development Agency] then. I negotiated that deal with him,” McCarthy said. “He did not want to look at stuff through the Empire Zone.”
Hull argued that although the purchase of the Ramada Inn and other properties reduced the tax base, it shored up a deteriorating neighborhood.
“The taxpayers would have lost much more than tax revenue if I didn’t ask the Board of Trustees to step in. And it would only have been a matter of time before Seward Place would have taken lower Nott Street and Van Vranken Avenue with it,” he said.
He argued that without Union’s renovations, the Golub Corp. would not have placed its headquarters near the college and developers would not have begun work on the Alco property on the other side of Erie Boulevard.
McCarthy disagreed. “Yes, it’s nice to fix things up,” he said. “But the bottom line is they draw half a million in hard service — police and fire — and contribute nothing.”
City officials have repeatedly asked Union for a $500,000 PILOT agreement and have been rebuffed.
Hull said the cost of sending police and firefighters to campus should not be held against Union.
He tried to enforce a policy of not calling police to campus and told firefighters not to respond to 911 calls unless the call was confirmed by the college. Firefighters told him they must respond to every call, he said.
Hull also said he refused to give the city cash because he didn’t trust city officials to use the money wisely.
“I could not justify going to a board of trustees and saying Union was going to make a cash payment when that was going to be used for bad decision-making and padding pensions,” Hull said.
But Union’s payments for specific projects should count as contributions to the city’s bottom line, he said.
“It’s clear what we made as payments, although some people might argue it’s not a PILOT if you think of PILOTs as cash,” Hull said.
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Categories: Schenectady County