PHOENIXVILLE — The Phoenixville Area School Board will take more time to investigate the tax abatements that borough council approved and sent to the school board for a vote.
“I think we’re waiting for some data,” said board President Joshua Gould. “The projects that were known were described to us but we’re waiting on similar data in writing on what those projects are. We have several specific questions that we’re asking our solicitor (so) we know the bounds of what we can and cannot do.”
Phoenixville Borough Council unanimously approved the update and expansion of Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance (LERTA) sites at its March 11 meeting.
Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance areas are set up to encourage growth in “deteriorated areas,” according to the York County Economic Alliance’s website. Once a site is chosen and approved for the Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance, it has 10 years to be developed.
Once a project comes in, the clock restarts and improvements to the sites can be made without having to pay corresponding tax fees for 10 years, at the most. Following the completion of the project, the tax rate will increase proportionately each year to the time until the abatement period is finished, when the site will pay its full assessed value on taxes.
To enact the abatements, approval must come from the school board and then the county.
In addition to confirming already-existing tax abatement sites in the borough, two more sites would be added with ultimate approval: the old borough hall site on Church Street and a part of the old steel mill site along French Creek.
The school board began discussing the timed abatements at its workshop meeting March 13 and several board members expressed caution.
“Our action item was to do a little more research on the LERTA and the associated properties,” board member David Ziev said of the board’s decision at the workshop meeting.
“The LERTA is the LERTA. Do we have any say over what percentage of the property will be residential and how many units? The answer to that is, ‘No,’” said Ziev, the head of the board’s financial committee. “(We can) ask what kind of properties can be put on the LERTA, but our action is how we can be more involved in the planning.”
Ziev said the district’s influence would come in the form of having someone attending planning commission meetings to express any reservations the school district may have.
Five years ago, the district approved creating several Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance sites. Gould, who sat on the committee which looked into it, said they were designed to encourage bringing in commercial properties which large associated tax assessments.
“The goal to us was commercial,” Gould said. “When we’re asked whether or not we want to improve LERTAs for residential, we have to think about how we want to approach what policy we would set (for) LERTAs for residential (areas). For example, there’s ‘No. No thanks, we’re not interested in residential.’ We could (also) say we’re willing to be a good community partner (and) help development in the community where it’s needed, which both of these are.”
District Executive Director of Operations Stan Johnson said the past LERTA sites in the borough have not yet been developed but are resulting in some encouraging talk.
“The discussions in the borough have been in support of what the district was hoping for,” Johnson said.
Potential projects include “additional restaurants, office spaces, (things that) don’t add students,” according to Johnson.
The problem has been mainly acquiring financing for the development from banks.
“Banks are still a little tight on releasing a lot of funding,” Johnson said. “Not much to do with LERTA.”
Spaces in East Pikeland or Schuylkill Township have garnered much less interest than those in Phoenixville, though Johnson said the sites in the latter are relatively small.
Gould said being a “good community partner” and approving the abatements would come provided the new properties wouldn’t add new students to the district which is already facing spiking enrollment rates.
One of the rumored projects for one abatement site, the old borough hall, is the senior housing which was originally proposed for Franklin Avenue near Friendship Field on the north side.
At the last borough council meeting, where the Local Economic Tax Revitalization Assistance sites were approved, developer Bruce Weinsteiger proposed “swapping” his project’s site for a borough-owned site, which was unanimously approved.
Council President Jim Kovaleski said talks were still in their preliminary stages about what site would be traded, but rumors around Phoenixville have suggested that the old borough hall site could be traded property.
A senior living facility would not bring more students to the district.
Increasing numbers of students is a big issue in the Phoenixville Area School District.
Currently, the district is in the midst of a legal challenge to its eminent domain acquisition of Meadow Brook Golf Club tied to the desire to construct a replacement for East Pikeland Elementary School combined with an early learning center to replace the overcrowded Kindergarten Center. The school board approved adding four more modular classrooms to East Pikeland, where four already stand.
Ziev and Gould met with Phoenixville Borough Manager Jean Krack shortly after the board workshop meeting to discuss the potential tax abatement, a meeting which Ziev said was marked with “excellent discussion.”
“Right now, we feel there’s some project that are complimentary to the district’s goal that would impact a number of students that would be added,” under the tax abatement, Ziev said.
Lisa Longo, a member of the Community Budget Advisory Committee (CBAC) and a district parent, said in public comment at the end of Thursday’s meeting that she felt the commercial development the district was seeking would come regardless of the tax abatement. Therefore, she was not in favor of it.
Although the borough reportedly hoped the board would move on approving the abatement this month, board members will continue to mull the decision.
“We’re still going to have our lawyer look at it, see if there’s anything we should change,” Ziev said. “We will most likely have this in April for the approval.”
Check out a Twitter recap of Thursday’s Phoenixville Area School Board meeting here.