The campaign manager for an Assembly candidate who compared land trusts to Ponzi schemes said the claim was “factually based but off the wall.”
115th Assembly District candidate Karen M. Bisso’s political opponents, the state, the land trusts and an Adirondack Park newspaper say that campaign manager Russell Finley’s explanation for the accusation of widespread municipal scam artistry is half right.
“I think it’s safe to say that she does not understand the way the Nature Conservancy works,” said Connie Prickett, a spokeswoman for the Adirondack chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
Mrs. Bisso faces off in a Sept. 13 GOP primary against Assemblywoman Janet L. Duprey, R-Peru, and David J. Kimmel, a Clinton County resident. The winner will face Plattsburgh City Councilman Timothy R. Carpenter in the Nov. 6 general election. Mrs. Bisso will be on the ballot in the general election regardless of the Sept. 13 outcome, by virtue of her appearance on the Conservative Party ticket. The district spans into the four easternmost St. Lawrence County towns.
Earlier this month, Mrs. Bisso’s campaign sent out a news release that claimed land trusts use state money to buy land, and then sell the rights for the land back to the state at a profit. Land trusts are nonprofit organizations that work to place conservation restrictions on parcels of land — for example, restrictions that say subdivisions can’t be created on the land.
Mrs. Bisso’s release specifically said the Thousand Islands Land Trust, based in Clayton, and the Nature Conservancy, which is involved in more than 100,000 acres of land deals in the Adirondack Park, are participants in the “scam” that represents the “biggest Ponzi scheme in history.” The campaign also claimed that once acquired by the state, the land is taken off the tax rolls.
Neither of the claims checks out.
“The Thousand Islands Land Trust has never acquired a piece of property using federal or state funds and sold an easement to anyone,” said Jake R. Tibbles, the group’s executive director. “Actually, most federal and state funding comes with stipulations saying that if grant funding is used to acquire a piece of property, we have to keep it open to the public or allow public access.”
And the state does indeed pay taxes on forest preserve land that it acquires, most recently through the purchase of the Finch Pruyn lands from the Nature Conservancy in the Adirondack Park — a deal that also earned an askance glance from Mr. Finley in an interview, though it wasn’t mentioned in the original release.
“Clearly, Ms. Bisso has no understanding of the state’s procurement process or the facts associated with this acquisition,” Emily K. DeSantis, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said in an email. “The state will pay full local property and school taxes on the land.”
The Adirondack Daily Enterprise first reported on Mrs. Bisso’s claims on Friday. On Saturday, the paper’s editorial board slammed Mrs. Bisso and her claims, saying she “shattered her credibility.” It was the rare anti-endorsement editorial: The paper concluded “We’re not sure whom we’ll vote for, but after this, it won’t be Ms. Bisso.”
Mr. Finley stood by his claims in an interview with the Times, though he couldn’t back them up with specifics.
“It is true,” Mr. Finley said. “I can’t remember the name of the group that did it, but it was done over here, around Canton, on the Little River. One of these green groups.”
He called the debate one of “semantics.”
“The state is buying land for green groups, then turning around and funding green groups to improve the property or limit the use of the property or do whatever they want with it,” Mr. Finley said.
And on taxes, Mr. Finley acknowledged that the state does pay local property taxes on land that it buys, but it’s all tax money anyway, so it’s “like borrowing five dollars from you to pay you back five dollars.”
The claims about land purchases reflect a more mainstream disagreement about the Adirondack Park. Assemblywoman Duprey, for example, said she opposes further state land purchases.
“I have opposed for years the state buying more land,” she said. “I think we own too much land as a matter of principle.”
While she might have a philosophical objection to it, Ms. Duprey said she applauds the way Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration has handled the recent purchase of 69,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks, announced Aug. 5.
“I think the bad part is that the state’s buying more land in the Adirondacks,” she said. “The good part is, it’s certainly going to open up parts of this acreage for use that otherwise would have never happened.”