Afton residents concerned over possible tax break for lumber yard

AFTON – Why would a successful company need taxpayer dollars to take over another business?

That’s what a group of roughly 20 Afton residents asked the county’s Industrial Development Agency Wednesday at a public hearing regarding an agreement that would give Owego-based Wagner Lumber a large tax break for purchasing a struggling saw mill in the town.

The group also wanted to know why virtually no one in Afton knew about the deal, why the required public hearing was held at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, and how no one knew about that, either.

“This was a poorly advertised meeting. And it’s a very poor time. This is a working class town,” said Village of Afton Mayor Sally Muller. “I’m speaking as a citizen. In the future, if the issue concerns our town, and the village is in the town, we should know more about what’s going on.”

What’s going on?

In July, Wagner Lumber filed an application with IDA for a Payment in Lieu of Taxes Agreement (PILOT), a state-authorized deal that cuts property taxes by 50 percent over 10 years as an incentive for industrial-type businesses to keep or create jobs in a county.

Chenango County’s IDA, like the ones that exist by state law in most counties, is granted the power to issue the break without taking the issue to public vote.

Les Wagner, the lumber company’s owner, says the deal would “help” him purchase Pomeroy Lumber, a mill located in Ninevah, on the outskirts of Afton, that was damaged in June 2006 flooding and on the verge of closing, according employees and Wagner officials.

Wagner would save between $145,000 and $197,000 in county, Town of Afton, and Afton school taxes if the PILOT is approved, according to IDA figures.

Wagner has not officially bought the property, but lists Wagner-Ninevah as one of its corporate offshoots on its website.

The total purchase is worth an estimated $1.525 million.

A corporate give-away?

“We have a hard enough time paying our taxes as it is,” said Afton resident Mike Bernhard. “Now we’re going to give a chunk of them away?”

Bernhard asked how Afton could afford to relieve Wagner of tax dollars when the town already can’t afford emergency services, has a tight school budget, and a flood-damaged town highway garage that has yet to be fixed.

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