School officials agreed to take a gamble on a plan that would give tax breaks to certain property owners for a decade but ultimately get several troublesome properties in Easton back on the tax rolls.
After a spirited debate, the Easton Area School Board unanimously approved a plan for a Keystone Opportunity Zone Tuesday night. Easton City Council has already approved the plan. Now, only the approval of Northampton County Council is needed before the plan is submitted to the state.
Easton Mayor Sal Panto was on hand to assure school board members that they were betting on a sure thing, saying developers are ready to move on each of the properties -- the Black Diamond and Simon silk mills; the intermodal site; the Governor Wolf building, and two vacant buildings in the 100 block of Northampton Street.
"Everything we put in [the KOZ] are game changers," Panto said, repeating what he told a school board committee two weeks ago. And, the mayor reminded the board, the Easton area is competing for development dollars with Allentown, which has a Neighborhood Improvement Zone and Bethlehem, which has a tax-free zone that extends throughout South Side.
In a KOZ, property, earned income and business privilege taxes are lowered for a decade, provided the sites are being developed.
At first, board member Robert Moskaitis was skeptical about the plan.
"Sound business practice says if you give up some financial advantage, you get something in return. I haven't heard what we're getting in return."
Several of Moskaitis' colleagues jumped at the chance to tell him.
Frank Pintabone said the district would "never receive a penny in revenue" without something like the KOZ, which would also help create jobs.
Baron Vandenburg said he spoke with someone who oversaw projects developed with tax incentives in New York City -- namely, his father, who managed an industrial park. "The opportunity for development increases. It's Economics 101," said Vanderburg. "We'd be fools to pass up something like this."
Timothy Reilly pointed out that the worst of the five properties -- the Black Diamond silk mill -- is a potential hazard for children attending Cheston Elementary School. "The roof has fallen in and the walls are in danger of collapse," he said. "There's no incentive [now] to improve the property, let alone develop it."
At the end of the discussion -- after Panto said he respected Moskaitis' position, even though he disagreed with it -- Moskaitis thanked his fellow board members for their input and surprised everyone by announcing he would support the KOZ plan.
Moskaitis ended by ribbing Panto. "Just once, I'd like to look out the window where I work and see something besides the [Simon] silk mill [on North 13th Street]," Moskaitis said. The mayor responded with a promise: "May 2013, you'll see construction start."