York City school board votes against forgiving Penn Market's back taxes
The York City school board has voted unanimously against forgiving $18,000 in back taxes owed by Penn Market. That means the historic community asset could be headed toward a tax sale next month, according to the city’s Redevelopment Authority.
The authority took ownership of the 151-year-old market at West Market and South Penn streets in June after the previous owners struggled to make necessary improvements to the structure.
In July, the authority announced a partnership with The Food Trust, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia, to study the market, determine its challenges and problem areas and identify potential opportunities for improvement.
The plan is to spend an estimated $2.5 million to $3 million over several years to re-establish Penn Market as a community anchor in the city’s WeCo neighborhood, project backers said at the time.
But that plan may be in flux because the school board voted not to write off the $18,014.39 the market owes to the York City School District.
Redevelopment Authority representatives took their case to the school board at a committee meeting Monday, Aug. 14 and the board voted unanimously Wednesday, Aug. 16 not to honor its request for tax forgiveness.
Monday meeting: RDA Chairman Michael Black and authority solicitor Donald Hoyt appeared before the board to ask that it forgive the back taxes.
York City Council already has forgiven $15,712 in taxes owed to the city, and the RDA is asking the York County commissioners to erase $5,237 in overdue county taxes, they said.
Black said Penn Market has the “potential to be a cornerstone for downtown and for the city as a whole" under the revitalization effort.
However, without the school district's willingness to forgive the taxes, Penn Market could head toward a tax sale in September, Hoyt added.
Black warned that if it goes to tax sale, the building could “fall into the wrong hands” of private investors.
'Big picture': School board member Michael Breeland called the request “quite challenging.”
“As a homeowner, no one’s exonerating my taxes,” he said.
Black cited the “unique circumstance” of Penn Market as a historic presence in York City.
“I guess we’re asking for some big-picture thinking,” he said.
“The big picture for me is when I get a bill, people expect me to turn over my money,” Breeland responded. “I do that, so I’m expecting the same.”
School board member David Moser asked Black what students should go without in order to meet the RDA’s request.
“I wouldn’t recommend taking anything away from the students,” Black replied.
“You’re standing here asking for us to take away from our students,” Moser countered. “That’s exactly what you’re doing.”
Black said he did not want to get into an argument but instead was asking for “leniency to try to give an asset back to the community.”
When Moser pressed for justification, Hoyt said the authority would be unable to pay the taxes.
In fact, the RDA is immune from taxation and would keep the market property off of the district's tax rolls for several years under its "short-term ownership," according to the authority.
Early stages: Black said the process for the market’s revitalization has started in the form of grant applications and a contract with The Food Trust.
The nonprofit would help conduct research-based studies to figure out the best way to sustain the facility, according to the RDA.
School board President Margie Orr suggested the authority should have completed its study with The Food Trust before appearing before the board.
Black noted the authority only recently acquired the market and just started the process of turning it around.
Moser — who several years back ran as a Libertarian for York City mayor — questioned Black’s characterization of “saving” the building from private investors.
“What are we saving? What are we preventing?” he asked. “I’m hearing you all say that you can’t even guarantee what the future of this market is going to be in your own hands.”
Black reiterated the authority’s intention to return Penn Market to a shopping destination for Yorkers. He said he couldn’t be more specific, adding, “anything’s on the table at this point.”
“We’ll let you know,” Orr said, ending discussion at Monday's meeting.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Hoyt declined to offer his thoughts on the board's reaction but said he understood the board's perspective.
"Exonerating taxes is a difficult decision," he said before the vote. "I'm sympathetic to that."
Following Wednesday's vote, Hoyt thanked the board and immediately left the meeting without further comment.