CANTON — Teamwork and ingenuity have been cited by state and St. Lawrence County officials as leading to the cleanup of more than 50 tax-delinquent and potentially contaminated properties and, in some instances, having them placed back on the county tax rolls.
The process of getting from identifying the properties to the completion of a state Department of Environmental Conservation cleanup and sale of the property was at the crux of a presentation made to the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators on Monday night during the board’s monthly Finance Committee meeting.
The lobby outside the legislative chambers at 48 Court St. had seven easels with before and after images of some of what County Attorney Stephen D. Button called the more notable projects that the county took on, as well as a map that showed 52 properties that the county has been engaged in, either with the help of the DEC or without, in trying to move forward and trying to get them back on the rolls and actively producing within the communities.
Among some of those notable projects was the old Slavin’s location at 31 Water St., Massena; the former Gardner Garage at 133 Water St., Massena; the former DJ Walters car dealership on West Main Street in Gouverneur; and the former M.R. Bells Inc. Service Station at 30 Riverside Drive.
The project, which was started roughly about 2007 or 2008, began with an idea developed in the county to start looking at some of these properties as potential problems and to try to find solutions.
That was ramped up in 2015 when Mr. Button became the county attorney, with the assistance of the office of County Treasurer Renee Cole, who is also the county’s chief taxing officer; Gary S. Bowitch, of Bowitch & Coffey LLC, Albany, who is the county’s outside environmental consultant, and DEC Regional 6 Spill Engineer Matthew W. Duffany.
The quartet presented the project and, Mr. Button said, for years many of these properties that were identified as a potential liability had just been left dormant.
“In fact, at one point, we tackled a property that had been lying dormant, essentially since 1996,” he said. “It had been exposed, had a great deal of potential liability, but we would not take title to it under the prior setup because we did not want to essentially take over the liability that was included with the property.”
That property ran up a tax bill with interest, penalties and fees included, that exceeded $800,000, which he said was a fairly significant problem for the county.
The issue for the DEC had been access to many of these sites for cleanup.
“And for a lot of these properties it probably couldn’t have happened without the tax foreclosure so from that standpoint, Renee is the chief taxing officer for St. Lawrence County,” Mr. Button said.
“Our office does the tax collection process and when taxes aren’t paid, it turns into the foreclosure process and during this process a lot of these are also identified by our office,” Ms. Cole said. “It’s a collaborative effort by the county attorney’s office, real property office, Gary’s office and eventually it ends up with the DEC.”
Mr. Button enforces the tax laws under Ms. Cole, brings the actions for foreclosure and gives the county an opportunity to seize properties that are tax delinquent and need to be cleaned up.
Starting in 2011, the county brought in Mr. Bowitch as an expert to assist in identifying properties that were environmental liabilities and how we can potentially resolve these issues. With Mr. Bowitch’s assistance, a team — consisting of the county’s Real Property Department, the Treasurer’s Office, County Attorney’s Office, and Heidi Ames, from the county Planning Department — was developed to start to analyze these properties.
“We’re basically taking dead, blighted properties that are a drain on the county and turning them into tax revenue generating businesses,” Mr. Bowitch said. “I am an environmental attorney and my role is to sort of shepherd these projects through. So I help the county evaluate which properties we might want to work on, take a look at the environmental conditions and what the potential liability issues are.”
Mr. Bowitch works to negotiate agreements with the state, particularly state comptroller’s Oil Spill Fund that has facilitated liability protection to the county and facilitated DEC access to some of these tax-delinquent sites so they can do cleanups.
That’s huge, Mr. Duffany said.
“A lot of these properties have been on our list for 20, 25 years now, and again, with that access in place with the cooperation between the county, the villages and the towns, building removal, all of the sudden this property that is now vacant and was currently inaccessible, becomes accessible,” Mr. Duffany said. “So that allows us to go in and do what we need to do for our cleanups and the benefit again for all parties is amplified because of that.”
Moreover, Mr. Bowitch said the liability releases run with the land, meaning after the property has been seized by the county and cleaned up by the DEC, anyone who buys it at auction, will also be cleared of environmental liability.
“So you come to the county tax auction and you go, ‘I can buy this property, it was dirty and now it is clean, I get a liability release and now I’m good to go,’ and you get these properties turned into productive reuse,” Mr. Bowitch said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
It also identifies key sites that are going to benefit the communities and allow DEC to go in and do the cleanup.
Mr. Button said the legalities to try to get onto property or gain access may take considerably longer than a two to three weeks cleanup by the DEC, but once the agency is involved, they get in and get out rather quickly.
“There has been a great team working together for several years now trying to attack problems that are properties in the hearts of our communities that are tax delinquent, blighted properties, drains on economic development,” Mr. Button said. “And we found a solution that is a win, really for everybody involved.”