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Might as well face it, we're addicted to Drum (and sales tax)

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In an upstairs room in Blackpool, by the side of a northern sea, the army had my father and my mother was having me.



DEC. 20, 2011: This summer I offered jobs to two recent college grads. Both accepted.

But each applicant called back about two weeks later and pretty much said the same thing: “I came up there to look for an apartment last week and I can't afford the rent.”

This is one of the backdrops of the recent debate over allowing developers to create Jefferson County housing while paying only a portion of the taxable value of their project for 10 to 20 years. Many people only factor in soldiers when discussing Jefferson County's housing shortage. But the full equation is that private businesses are constantly running into a brick wall because there is little housing available for the professionals they are trying to hire and move here.

Meanwhile, these business leaders have expanded their operations based on the Pentagon's decision years ago to locate a third combat brigade at Fort Drum.

That's why several of them have written to Watertown school board members, begging them to join the county and town of Watertown in approving two proposed “payment in lieu of taxes” agreements with developers who want to build a total of 700 apartments near Watertown.

(And if the truth be known, we need overbuilding. The only thing that can bring rents in line with the local economy is to have at least a 5 percent rental availability, rather than the current rate that can only be found using an atomic microscope).

A few district officials and school board members are firing flak at the proposed PILOT agreement, citing the pending dangers that growth can bring. The dangers are so real, they believe, that they are paying a consultant to produce data to show them how much money the district will lose if growth occurs.

Spending money to avoid losing money is not necessarily a bad idea. But consider some of the data produced by the consultant. Board members are being told that a new 300-apartment complex might produce an additional 300 students, which the district fears it can't afford to transport and educate. But historical data, which is free, can be found at Summit Woods. When it opened a couple of years ago, its 200 apartments produced only 30 students.

Watching this school board blanch at the thought of growth is confusing without some background.

The county legislature and the town of Watertown can afford to slap backs and pop champagne corks as they agree to give tax breaks to developers. That's because the public doesn't vote on their budgets. Conversely, school board members fear that the Occupy Wall Street mantra will spill over to next May's school budget vote. They seriously fear that district residents, who might love to travel to Wall Street and beat up a broker, will conclude they can just stay here and vote down the school budget if the board doesn't beat up an out-of-town developer – He might be a millionaire! – right now.

And, there is this: Unlike school districts, county, city and town governments are financed in large part by sales tax. Occupy Wall Street? Forget about it. They only care about Occupy Walmart, and right now these elected officials are flat-out addicted. If sales tax were crystal meth, our politicians would be gray-skinned, gaunt and toothless.

Need proof? A cadre of community leaders last Thursday – shovels in hand and yakking it up – broke ground on a new COR apartment complex while the school board hadn't even voted on the PILOT agreement yet.

While some school board members believe that more students could bankrupt the district, state and local official listening to the laments just roll their eyes. They have all decided behind the scenes that if the school district even comes close to losing money in the next 10 years, somebody either in Albany or the town of Watertown will just toss a bag of cash over the fence.

And here's why: After losing military bases in Plattsburgh and Rome in the 1990s, the state is not going to chance a similar fate at Fort Drum. And the brass at Drum has sent a very clear message to the Cuomo administration: as long as progress is made to create more housing, we're good. Any serious wavering, as has been shown by the Watertown School Board, and all other options will be considered.

Years ago the Pentagon realized that asymmetrical warfare was the problem and that light infantry was the solution. Through 25 years of vision and funding, the Army has turned Fort Drum into a base that trains many of the rapid response soldiers necessary for the nation's defense. And that defense requires three brigades of combat soldiers living next to a handy runway to anywhere.

So there's the game plan.

It would be wise if all of our community leaders – including the school board — developed a unified vision that is in the best interests of both a growing military base and the nearby businesses affected by that growth.

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