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December 11, 2016
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Disagreement over tax breaks for Sullivan casino projects

Would tax breaks help or hurt the chances of a casino or two coming to Sullivan County? That’s a question still being debated by members of the Sullivan County legislature.

At a meeting at the government center on June 5, legislator Alan Sorensen unveiled a resolution he crafted that would prohibit the Sullivan County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) from granting tax breaks from the casino portion of any resort destination that might come to the county.

Sorensen reiterated his belief that granting tax abatements would diminish the chance of a given project receiving a license because one of the states’ stated goals in creating casinos is to provide revenue to depressed regions such as the Catskills.

Sorensen also questioned whether the IDA has the authority to grant tax abatements to casinos because the legislation that allowed for the creation of IDAs specifically mentioned the industries that could receive abatements and casinos were not among them.

Legislator Cindy Geiger agreed with Sorensen, noting that the IDA tax abatement policy for resort destinations includes eight years of no real estate taxes, and she said the county needs the tax revenue that would be generated by the casino.

Legislator Ira Steingart, who is also chair of the IDA board, said that with press reports now indicating that some would-be casino developers are having trouble lining up financing for the projects, the goal of the legislature should be helping to put the developers in the best possible position to obtain a casino license.

He also noted that as of now, no casino projects had applied for abatements, and said, "debating this when there is not even an application before the IDA is sending the wrong message."

Geiger brought up the fact that the county is on the verge of building a $68 million jail. She said, "We need the revenue that will be abated."

Steingart replied, "If we don’t have any projects, you don’t have to worry about any revenue."

Legislator Jonathan Rouis said that the applications for casino licenses were being prepared by teams of professional consultants who would know best about what should go into them to make them as competitive as possible.

He said to Sorensen, "With all due respect to your background, [as the planning commissioner of Sullivan County] I don’t think you can make that assessment, nor can I or anyone else here."

Toward the end of the discussion, Ira Cohen, the county treasurer said there were legitimate issues on both side of the debate. He said, the casino issue aside, he thought the IDA abatement policy for tourist destination projects should be reconsidered because, "eight years of no taxes is excessive."

Specifically regarding the casino issue he said not granting abatements might make an application more competitive because that would bring the application more in line with the legislation regarding the creation of casinos. On the other hand, lenders might be looking for tax abatements before they would commit to a project, and without lenders there are no projects.

He said, "I think we should encourage a healthy debate, I don’t know the answer."