One of the workshop discussions at last Thursday night’s municipal meeting was PILOT discussions with the Board Of Education (BOE). At a previous BOE meeting earlier this summer, the school board had discussions on meeting with either the governing body or personnel from the municipality to ask questions and get answers regarding PILOT and development.
Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, or PILOT as it is more commonly known, is important to a municipality, a school district, and ultimately taxpayers. The program was created to provide an incentive for investors and developers to build on otherwise vacant or underutilized areas of a municipality by offering to have the property owner make payments over a period – up to 30 years – that end up being less than if they paid property taxes straight out. The payment is based on revenues every year which is based on occupancy. In other words, if an apartment complex has fewer people living in it, it pays less of a PILOT. This is a benefit to a town government because 95% of the improvements part of property taxes goes to the municipality while 5% goes to the county. None of that money goes to a school district. While the school board does receive funds from the land portion of property taxes, it is significantly less than it would receive if it collected what averages out to be around 55% of property taxes.
PILOT was originally intended for commercial development – not solely residential construction – because in reality there are no children who go to public schools from a retail store or commercial space. Over the years it has become a point of contention between school districts, taxpayers, and municipal governments with apartment complex developers using the program. The argument against its use is that children who attend public schools from an apartment complex will impact the population and cost of education for all, but there will be no adequate recompense for that increase. The position held by those who favor PILOT is that school-age children from apartment complexes are not significant and that in reality, any additional students into a school district do not necessarily mean a ‘per student cost’ for each child that enters a public school.
Mayor Carl Hokanson at the September 6th meeting commented he learned about the school board approaching the borough’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Ken Blum to meet with the BOE privately through committee meetings to discuss development and PILOT. The mayor stated, “What I am suggesting to mayor & council is that we have an open meeting, bring in the professionals, set a date and a time that works for everybody, and have them in this council chamber to explain everything once and for all . . . Get the board, the public, everybody involved, have them here [at] one meeting.”
The mayor also suggested that the joint public meeting should be videotaped and televised on TV-32/34 and uploaded online as well as kept on archive. He continued, “I don’t care if it takes all night long. [We’ll] have the professionals here and everybody gets the answer to their questions.”
First Ward Councilwoman Jayme Lynn Negron with tongue firmly planted in cheek, knowing how long such a discussion could take, jokingly added, “We could make it a pajama party, just come in our jammies, make it an all-night[er].”
Borough Clerk Andrew Casais interjected that a few school board members did approach him and Mr. Blum for private meetings. During the August BOE meeting, school member Joseph Signorello Jr. – at the behest of the BOE – wanted to have the borough clerk and CFO sit with all members in three separate private meetings to answer questions they had about PILOT. In order to avoid any issue with the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) which requires the public be allowed to be in attendance for meetings that have a quorum of any governing body, sit-downs with the board were going to be separated into meetings of three to four members which would be less than a majority of the nine-member school board.
Mr. Casais said, “Our feeling as professionals who work for the borough, we work with the professionals who work with the school district very well for the benefit of the whole community, and I feel like the two groups of elected officials feel the same way. Our reaction, speaking for Ken and myself, was we have no problem doing that, meeting with them, because that was their original request but . . . we’re your professionals; we’re not the Board Of Ed’s professionals, so we wanted to make sure that you were okay having us meet with them.”
Mr. Casais added he reached out to the BOE directly, with the consent of Councilwoman Negron who is the BOE liaison for the council. He explained, There was a little bit of miscommunication after that point that led to about a month’s delay because of the summer. I think . . . there’s a couple of [BOE] members who’d like to benefit from a sitdown before it does go public. [I’m] not saying that they’re against a public meeting, but they wanted to sit down with Ken and I to vet out a couple of their questions and concerns in-house without just coming to a meeting and asking questions.”
Councilwoman Negron responded Thursday night, “I think maybe other people might have the same questions that they want to ask you so it might be beneficial for them to just come to the open meeting. What if one of their questions was something that someone else was already thinking? It can all just be answered [at] one giant meeting.”
“Then I’ll advise the [school] board members that there’s not going to be [those] meetings,” replied Mr. Casais, continuing, “We’ll come up with a date where we can have a joint session and have our professionals here if that’s what the sentiments of the governing body are.”
Mayor Hokanson asked, “What about as far as taping?”
“I think that’s a great idea, too,” agreed the councilwoman, “There can be a whole new Board Of Ed, and there can be a whole new council, and they’ll still have that forever to reference and answer any questions they have.”
Fifth Ward Councilman Thomas ‘Thos’ Shipley concurred, “People can have access to it later.”
Mr. Casais expounded, “We’ll come up with a mutual date that works for both which might a struggle in and of itself.”
According to OPMA, both governing bodies will have to advertise to comply with the Sunshine Law.
When asked by the borough clerk who the governing body wanted present at the meeting on their behalf, Mayor Hokanson answered, “Bring them all in, this way here if they’ve got a question . . . they’re getting the answers right from the horse’s mouth.”