EDITORIAL: Shortsighted decision by York City school board

The York Dispatch
  • The RDA took over the 151-year-old market in June after the previous owner struggled to care for it.
  • The plan is to spend several million improving the market over several years.

The York City school board stood its ground last week, refusing to forgive a little more than $18,000 in back taxes owed by the struggling Penn Market, a downtown fixture since 1866.

That is its right, of course.

And it’s understandable, to a point.

More:York City school district votes against forgiving Penn Market's back taxes

More:York City committed to long-term Penn Market revamp

The York City School District is in the midst of a state-ordered process of getting its finances in order, and the state has appointed a financial recovery officer to see that it happens.

More:York City District addresses critical audit, disputes Auditor General's Office

More:State: Thackston hasn't filed financial reports since 2012

The school board and its various members over the years don’t have a great track record of being good stewards of public money, and a recent review by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale suggests the current board still needs to do a better job exercising its oversight authority.

An artist's rendering of Penn Market is displayed during a news conference at the market announcing planned improvements Friday, July 7, 2017. The York City Redevelopment Authority took ownership of the building several weeks ago. Bill Kalina photo

If the board’s decision Wednesday, Aug. 16, to reject a request by the York City Redevelopment Authority (RDA) to forgive $18,014.39 in back taxes owed by Penn Market is an example of a newfound attention to detail, that’s a good thing.

In this case, however, it also might be shortsighted.

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 care for 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 improve Penn Market and re-establish it as a community anchor in the city’s WeCo neighborhood, project backers said.

However, the RDA said that plan might be in flux because of the school board’s decision not to forgive the taxes. Without the tax forgiveness, the market could go to sheriff’s sale next month.

A representative told the board it can’t pay the overdue taxes; it has also asked York City and the county to forgive taxes owed to those entities. The city agreed, and the county commissioners are considering the request.

A comment by school board member David Moser highlights the shortsightedness behind last week’s decision.

During an exchange with RDA Chairman Michael Black, Moser asked what Black would suggest students do without if the board were to grant the authority’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.”

Well, Mr. Moser, what are these students doing without now? These are delinquent taxes we’re talking about — you don’t have that money now and you might never see a dime of it, or pennies on the dollar if the market is sold to settle the taxes.

A new owner who scoops up the landmark at a bargain basement price might not be able to manage the upkeep on the property (the previous owner couldn’t).

It might fall into further disrepair, lowering the assessed value. The new owners might fall behind on their taxes and then walk away when they’ve wrung every last dollar possible from the market.

There’s no guarantee.

However, the whole reason for the RDA is to acquire distressed properties and return them to the tax rolls.

It wants to put millions of dollars into the property and raise the assessed — taxable — value.

It has a plan to work with a respected nonprofit to help conduct research-based studies to figure out the best way to sustain the facility far into the future.

That sounds like a great idea to us, and we hope the board’s decision doesn’t kill the project.

We hope a benefactor — perhaps the owner of one of the many tax-exempt properties in York City; anonymous, if it likes — shows the vision the school board lacks and steps forward to settle the outstanding debt.

We suspect York City taxpayers, residents and students would thank them for generations to come.