Middletown grapples with flood relief issues

By Pauline Liu
Members of Middletown Town Board made the difficult decision last Tuesday night to not participate in a 2011 property tax break program for flood victims, because they believe the town cannot afford to.

With new Supervisor Marge Miller at the helm, it was one of the toughest issues tackled by the town board at its first meeting of the new year. 

The program was created with the state passage of the Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee Assessment Relief Act last month. Delaware County is one of 33 counties eligible to participate. If Middletown took part in the program, flood victims who lost 50 percent or more of their property would have been allowed to have their damaged property “reassessed on the 2011 assessment roll based upon its post-storm condition, even though the damage occurred after the 2011 taxable status date.

The towns that participate in the program would give tax breaks to flood victims, who haven’t yet paid taxes this year and those who have paid up would receive refunds.  Property owners who’ve completed their flood repairs, would be ineligible for assessment relief. While the Delaware County Board of Supervisors earlier this month voted to adopt the Assessment Relief Act, the Middletown officials have expressed concerns that the town would have to pay flood victims tens of thousands of dollars that are not in the budget.

“When you throw in CVS and Freshtown, it gets much higher,” said Code Enforcement Officer Pat Davis.

Unlike the assessment relief program that the state created after the 1996 flood, this time around, the cash-strapped state is not offering to reimburse towns for the tax refunds paid to property owners under the program. Meanwhile, the Middletown Board of Assessors is working on its own assessment relief plan. The assessors have begun reassessing flood-damaged property in time to offer tax breaks to flood victims for the 2012 school taxes this September. Assessor Gary Marks told the gathering that he has doubts about the state’s program.

“We don’t want to overextend ourselves to affect taxpayers next year,” said Marks. “It’s a nightmare.  It’s the government wanting to help and making it worse,” he added. 
Town board members pulled no punches in reacting to the program.

“To me this is a bad deal,” said Jake Rosa.

Brian Sweeney agreed. “It just seems that there are too many unknown things and we could end with a really big number,” he said.

Miller called the program, “a cesspool of legal ingenuity” and “a public relations nightmare,” as she pointed out that Delaware County will be advertising the program and some flood victims will be disappointed to learn that the town is not taking part.

“My way of dealing with this is to table it,” she said. “In other words, opt out and do our best with Delaware County taxes,” she added. 

In other post-flood related news, the town board unanimously approved plans to seek a long-term Hazard Mitigation Grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Mitigation grants are available to buy out properties that have been destroyed such as the trailer parks in Arkville. Miller will be required to submit a letter of intent by February 29, to inform FEMA about the project that the town will be undertaking. A presentation about the grant was made by Mike Jastremski, who is an environmental planner with the Delaware County Planning Department.

The town board also took a vote on whether Middletown should participate in the Catskill Mountain Scenic Byway program. Board members voted 4-to-1 to adopt the plan. Town Board Member Rosa voted against the designation.

“A lot of scenic byways that I’ve seen don’t have a lot of signage and signs help with jobs,” Rosa said.

Peter Manning of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development was the consultant hired to write the plan and organize the Central Catskills Collaborative.

“The Scenic Byway is an economic development through tourism tool,” said Manning. Middletown was the first town to adopt the plan. The Village of Fleischmanns also voted to participate.
“It should make them happy, because it’s their project,” said Manning. The project began in 2009 and was supported by $50,000 from the Catskill Watershed Corporation’s Local Technical Assistance Program. The towns of Andes and Shandaken as well as the Village of Margaretville are expected to take up the issue in the coming weeks.

And finally, Middletown will be getting its own website. The town board voted unanimously to hire Lisa Tait of Silvertop Graphics in New Kingston to create a site. Miller, who is writing a grant for an office computer said she may include the project in her grant application. 
The next Middletown Town Board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 14 at 7 p.m. at town hall.