BID members wrong to oppose library plan

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I was particularly offended by the letter to the editor signed by seven of 10 of the Great Neck Plaza Business Improvement District board members, opposing the library referendum.

This is the same group that regularly writes in opposition to the school and library budget, as well – even wrote against last year’s school budget that was kept to under 2 percent increase (before the cap went into effect), saying that the school district should have had a zero increase (when a zero-increase is actually a reduction).

It is offensive because it is our schools, libraries and parks that enable our community to attract high prices for our homes, and therefore people affluent enough to patronize their stores.

It is also offensive because it is our property taxes that provides the police protection, the roads and lighting that merchants and commercial property owners depend upon.

Ron Edelson, the executive director of the Plaza BID who actually penned the letter for those members ((Village of Great Neck Plaza) Mayor Jean Celender, Trustee Gerald Schneiderman are on the BID board but refused to sign the letter), made the oft-repeated argument that high taxes are driving businesses away.

Edelson pointed to the “empties” to prove his point. Nonsense. There always are empties, in good times as well as bad. That’s capitalism for you: businesses that are able to offer goods and services at prices that attract customers stay.

But the main reason we have empties here is the pure greed of property owners who extract such high rents that no one can make a go of it.

If high taxes drove businesses away, there would not be any businesses here at all; the office buildings would be empty.

Businesses come to Great Neck to have access to an affluent clientele as well as thousands of workers who are potential shoppers.

But stores and offices also are not empty because commercial property owners and merchants are able to do what residents cannot: they can take the cash out of their property year by year, in the form of higher rents or higher prices. Homeowners can only take the cash out of their property once, when they cash out.

I also challenge the notion that commercial property taxes are increasing disproportionately to revenues (rents or prices) as a proportion of other expenses – not that taxes aren’t going up, but that they are rising higher than revenues.

One reason is because for the past 15 years or so, the Nassau County assessing authority has systematically shifted the “burden” of property taxes away from commercial property owners onto residential property owners. Each year, a greater proportion of the tax “pie” is being placed on homeowners. That is why even a zero increase in the school budget becomes a 1 or 2 percent increase in property taxes.

Commercial property owners routinely, each and every year, file for tax refunds and abatements, and account for 80 percent of the tax refunds, which are paid for by homeowners That’s another reason taxes go up even if the operating budgets do not, and it will only be worse because of Nassau County now shifting the burden for paying off the refunds onto schools, libraries, parks and other municipalities.

On the other hand, the owners of commercial property in Great Neck who I know, manage to own homes in Kings Point and similar affluent neighborhoods, and send their kids to private or parochial schools, so things can’t be all that bad.

Bruce Bent, the president of the Plaza BID, and a frequent failed Republican candidate for office on an anti-tax, pro-business platform, on the other hand, does not even live in Great Neck nor own property here any more, so it is hard to accept Edelson’s statement that the letter signers were speaking for themselves.

In most municipalities, their local chamber is the one that operates the local tourism and visitor bureau, putting out the welcome mat and enticing people to come, because that’s really “found” money, as every dollar spent by a visitor ripples four times through a local economy.

A farmers’ market would have had that effect of bringing people into the community, who would shop for farm-fresh produce (seniors could even have had a $25 voucher from New York State to spend), and then go for lunch or buy a book or a blouse or some food to complement the produce. Have you noticed how festive and neighborly-like farmers’ markets are? They have the ability to build a sense of neighborhood.

But our Great Neck chamber and the so-called old village business group battled the park district to make sure no farmers market came to the Village Green, even though it would have been a boon to the village. After three separate tries, the park district gave up. Our community suffers. (Full disclosoure: my husband Neil Lieberman, is running for a seat on the park district board.)

The business group is similarly short-sighted about the library referendum.

Edelson said that the library just expanded Station Library and therefore doesn’t need to expand Main.

You’d think the merchants, particularly in Kaplan’s shopping center, the Gardens of Great Neck, would be jumping up and down to have a library that would attract more people – and likely to have expanded hours, as well – because they will almost certainly shop for food, go for a snack or a meal, run errands while they are already downtown.

And they are being shortsighted about the benefits to property owners with an improved Main Library. In case you haven’t noticed, our total assessed valuation for Great Neck has gone down – that doesn’t mean we pay less tax, it means we pay more. The way we would pay less is if everybody’s property values went up – valuation goes up – then everyone’s taxes go down.

I can just imagine the real estate brokers in the BID, telling a customer to buy the $1 million property that is too small and needs work, instead of the $1.5 million property that is mint, state-of-the-art and will serve their needs for 20 years, but will cost $30 more a year for the duration of a mortgage.

I shouldn’t brand all merchants as greedy, looking only to take money from consumers and not give anything back to the community.

There are some civic-minded business owners and merchants in town, like Jeffrey Phillips of Cafe Rustica who supports local non-profits by hosting dinners on a Monday night where half the check goes back to the organization and Alan Hoenig of Poultry Mart (who fortunately was just appointed to the Plaza BID board).

In fact, we have two Rotary International clubs here whose mission is to do good works.

The Rotary of Great Neck, for example, supports Gift of Life, which sponsors heart operations for children in need (altogether, Rotary International has sponsored 10,000 operations worldwide); our chapter feeds 5,000-6,000 people at Thanksgiving, and had a project bringing dictionaries to first graders at North Shore Hebrew Academy and adult English Language Learners at Clover Drive.

“There is a fight going on in business community by those who would invest in the community,” said John Ryan, a former president of Great Neck Rotary, who is also senior vice president at Janney Montgomery Scott. “Great Neck is known for schools, libraries, parks and the commute to the city, and those things have to be maintained and preserved. No it’s not the cheapest place, but if we do not maintain quality, if we start letting a library go, next they will cut school budget and if we lay off teachers and have larger class sizes, property values will go…. Then who wants to move into Great Neck, and then the businesses couldn’t survive.”

He recalls the battle over the bond for Parkwood Pool. “Now people love it.”

I seem to remember the good ol’ days when we had a chamber of commerce that did support the community. But that is a very long, long time ago.

The holidays are coming up. It is hard to summon the spirit for a “Shop in Great Neck” campaign when some of our Great Neck merchants work against the interests of the community.

As a community, we should be more consumer-minded in choosing the merchants we want to support based on which support the community.

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