‘Distressed’ Hawley designation makes Cozza ‘walk’
Lines were drawn and battles were waged to the point where an incensed Hawley Planning Commission member stormed out of the meeting on January 1 amid angry words from the public and the commission. While the fiscal cliff in Washington was averted New Year’s Eve, and still with unanswered questions, Hawley seems poised on its own fiscal cliff, with no answers in the foreseeable future.
The planning commission experienced the déjà vu of last month’s Hawley Borough Council meeting in which both boards pitted themselves against the owners of the Hawley Silk Mill in a no-holds-barred fight. This one had to be stopped after board member Lou Cozza stood up, hesitated and then blurted out, “I have to leave, before I say something I’ll regret.”
It was at that time that Mary Sanders, borough council vice president, who was sitting in on the meeting, put an end to the discussion until January 9 and said, “What has been said so far has left people’s blood boiling. We better stop now.”
But the question still looms: should the borough be deemed a “distressed” area, which would allow the borough to take advantage of the state’s Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance Act (LERTA), but which tax assessor Barbara Middaugh said would still necessitate a tax increase and put “50 people within the township” out of their homes. And, therein lies the rub.
A heated Grant Genzlinger, one of the investors of the Hawley Silk Mill, which has fallen behind on tax payments, pleaded his case to the planning commission in a decidedly edgier, more pointed manner than at the borough council meeting last month.
Genzlinger repeatedly pointed to the 11 vacant storefronts on Main Street and the fact that 19% of Hawley residents fall below the poverty level and are either unemployed or underemployed. He said that the board should “come to its senses and deem Hawley distressed.”
Attorney Bob Bernathy said, “I’m somewhat concerned about the particulars,” stressing that LERTA has very specific guidelines regarding the declaration of an area as distressed or deteriorated.
This time, Justin Genzlinger, another Silk Mill investor, pointed to the 11 vacant storefronts once again, to which Bernathy replied, “I don’t want to prejudge or speculate [about vacant stores], but does this constitute one of the major improvement statutes as set forth by LERTA including a nuisance or fire hazard? We need more facts,” he stressed.
“This measure would make the borough more viable and mean more jobs and instill a sense of community,” Grant Genzlinger said.
“I can’t circumvent the law. You are speaking in generalities,” Bernathy retorted. “Show me a town declared distressed and we can compare.” LERTA, according to Bernathy, lays out very specific and fundamental principles that a borough must meet in an extensive document before becoming eligible for tax abatements and other such exemptions.
Justin Genzlinger pressed on, insinuating that Bernathy did not fully understand LERTA.
“I have been an attorney for municipalities for 17 years. I think I know my job,” Bernathy said, adding that he is more than aware of the ins and outs of LERTA.
Sanders asked, “If you were not in this predicament over taxes, would we be here now?”
Hawley Borough Council President Don Kyzer, also sitting in, suggested that the Hawley Silk Mill is highly attractive to prospective business owners and has, in fact, deterred businesses from locating in the downtown area.
Both Genzlingers took exception to this statement, and that’s when Cozza left the meeting. The hour-long debate was then ended by Sanders.
At the January 9 Hawley Borough Council meeting, the planning commission said they would defer to more experts and at least one member of the school board.