Tax deal for assisted living facilities blocked

North Hills Mayor Marvin Natiss spearheaded a drive North Hills Mayor Marvin Natiss spearheaded a drive against a proposed 10-year tax abatement for the Bristal assisted living communities in North Hills. (March 5, 2013) Photo Credit: Uli Seit

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Residents and civic and municipal leaders in three Nassau County communities are claiming victory after battling a tax-relief deal for several assisted-living homes, a plan critics said would have cost millions in potential revenues over 10 years.

"It's encouraging for people in other communities who might not know what to do or how to prevent these kinds of projects," said Charlene Obernauer, executive director of Long Island Jobs with Justice, a Hauppauge nonprofit concerned with reforming economic development.

The Nassau Industrial Development Agency recently approved the Engel Burman Group's plan to buy back three Bristal assisted-living facilities it helped develop, then sold -- in North Hills, Massapequa and Westbury. The sale closed last month.

In its original sales plan, the Garden City-based group sought a 10-year payment in lieu of taxes agreement for the homes that were midway through existing tax-abatement deals, according to documents provided by the IDA. In return, the communities where the homes are located would have gained fewer than 50 full-time, lower-wage jobs, critics say.

Residents and other municipal and school leaders in those communities fought the proposal, and Engel Burman eventually dropped its request. IDA officials declined to speculate why, and the developer said in subsequent negotiations, it had offered to pay more to some communities upfront.

"We're all taxed very highly," said Marvin Natiss, mayor of North Hills. "I didn't think they were entitled to more."

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The Westbury community mounted perhaps the strongest opposition to the tax-relief bid. The original plan called for adding three full-time positions, the fewest among the three communities. At a public hearing in November, a group of 100 residents, lawmakers and the school's superintendent spoke about rising tax rates. Some longtime residents said they were considering leaving the village altogether.

According to data in the Bristal's original application provided by the IDA, the next 10 years would have seen in Westbury about $2.2 million in fewer revenues; in North Hills, $2.6 million; Massapequa, $2 million.

Despite the sale plan's approval, officials said they remain wary and vowed to spend conservatively.

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"There's another shoe to drop," said Legis. Robert Troiano (D-Westbury). He said he is concerned that the developer could file a grievance to lower its tax assessments.

"It could be, though, that five years from now, they win their tax grievance and some tax entity has to pay that money back," he said. "So we're jumping up and down right now, and in five years, may be crying."

For John Bierwirth, superintendent of the Herricks school district, the news comes as welcome relief. The district has cut about 85 jobs in the last two years, he said, and may need to trim another 20 by the next school year.

"The district has almost no commercial property," he said. "If you give a tax break to a business like this, beyond its development phase, you're shifting the tax burden onto the homeowners."

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