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December 20, 2009

State senator charges Nets bonds are illegal

Freddy's Bar, one of the buildings slated for demolition to make way for the new Nets arena in Brooklyn, is installing chains today so that patrons can attach themselves to their barstools if the bulldozers come. But as surprise last-ditch efforts to forestall the Atlantic Yards arena project go, there might be more significance in a state legislator's surprise insistence that the arena bonds sold last week are illegal:

Suggesting that bonds for the Brooklyn arena were issued improperly, state Senator Bill Perkins yesterday asked Governor David Paterson to halt the "master closing" for the project scheduled for Wednesday and to stay condemnation proceedings until "serious questions... are addressed."
Had the bonds been issued by an Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) subsidiary, they could be repaid via for payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), but the issuance would have had to have been approved by the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), Perkins wrote in a letter. However, in an apparent effort to avoid the PACB, the ESDC created the Brooklyn Arena Local Development Corporation (BALDC), and that murky entity--which issued $511 million in bonds--should not possess a property tax exemption, the letter said.

In English, that seems to mean this: In order to take advantage of the Yankees dodge and use federally subsidized tax-exempt bonds for the arena, the Nets need to claim that their bond payments are really "payments in lieu of property tax." (For reasons that I really can't bear to explain again, tax-free bonds can only be paid off with tax revenue, not private rent payments.) But of course, to be "in lieu of" property tax, the property in question needs to not be charging tax that it otherwise could be.

Since the property is state-owned (or will be, once the private portions are seized by eminent domain), it's been assumed by all involved that it's exempt from property taxes. But as Amy Lavine, a staff attorney at the Albany Law School's Government Law Center, discovered, that's not necessarily so. She described the problem in an interview with Atlantic Yards Report:

"Basically, the LDC is not a public entity," she said. "And it's controlled by different sections of the tax code in New York State. Either ESDC didn't think of the implications of this or they didn't think anyone would notice, because it is rather esoteric. It seems that, under the tax section that applies to the LDC, they're not eligible for exemption from property taxes." (The LDC is subject to ยง420-a of the property tax code.)
According to the recent Court of Appeals decision in Lackawanna LDC v. Krakowski, the LDC leased property to a for-profit manufacturing company and the property was considered taxable, because manufacturing and economic development is not a tax-exempt purpose. Had the Legislature intended a blanket property tax exemption for LDCs, it would have done so expressly, as it has in other contexts, the court said.
And if they're not exempt from property taxes, she said, there's no way to divert property taxes to pay for the arena bonds, via PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes), and so nothing backing the bonds.
"To go forward, I believe that the process has to start over and ESDC will have to do this properly and get it reviewed by the Public Authorities Control Board and the state Comptroller," she said.

Whether this legal argument is valid, I have no idea — as the one property-tax expert I contacted today remarked, "This is way above my pay grade." That said, major development projects in this city have been scuttled by more unlikely sources, so anything is possible. It'll be very interesting to see if Gov. Paterson responds, and if not, whether Perkins (or local opponents) then throws another lawsuit on the fire.

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