Havre de Grace approves tax deal for St. John's Commons; farmers market move squelched

St. John's Commons is receiving a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT, agreement with the City of Havre de Grace, after the city council approved the petition Monday and also passed tighter regulations for PILOT agreements in general.

St. John's Commons, which provides housing for the elderly, was already approved for such an agreement with Harford County in February 2012.

The PILOT agreement will allow the nonprofit to make annual payments to the city on a per-unit basis, rather than paying city property taxes based on its property's market value.

The actual amount St. John's Commons will pay still must be negotiated between the operators of the development and the city, Finance Director George DeHority said Thursday. Under the agreement the complex has with the county, the annual per unit payments began at $175 and are due to rise in $25 annual increments until the sixth year (2016), after which there will be an annual increase of 3 percent per unit.

DeHority said he will be involved in the negotiations, along with Council President Randy Craig and City Attorney Paul Ishak.

Havre de Grace's new PILOT regulations that were passed Monday mandate that the agreements not exceed more than 20 years and that the property owner pays full water and sewer connection charges, first enters into a separate agreement with Harford County, provides the city with an annual audit and pays either an agreed percent of the actual tax due or an agreed per-unit charge that includes annual increases.

Ishak explained that the last requirement is because the city wants to ensure "some type of consistency from one PILOT program to another."

"Under the current regiment of PILOT programs, we have several out there that are just very hard to calculate," he said. "It is an administrative task to even calculate what PILOT payments are."

Craig said the council realized it had some very old PILOT agreements and none have been done in a while.

St. John's Towers, another Havre de Grace facility providing housing for the elderly, also had a PILOT agreement with the city, which was done in 1985, according to DeHority.

About the old agreements, Craig said, "we had to untwist them, legally speaking, to bring them into sort of a usable agreement."

The city now has four or five and they are all done very differently, he said.

"We'll have some guidelines that the council can follow moving forward in the future," he said about the resolution.

Mayor Wayne Dougherty excused himself from the vote on the St. John's PILOT. His brother owned the land off Pennington Avenue where the facility was built.

Growing farmers market

The Havre de Grace Farmers Market is considering expanding and wanted to move to a slightly more visible location but met resistance over the latter, the mayor and council members were told.

Market organizers were considering moving from Pennington Avenue to the 200 block of Washington Street.

"Unfortunately, not everyone's in agreement on this," Bill Watson, with Havre de Grace Main Street, Inc., explained. "There's been a little bit of pushback and I understand that."

"I dealt with this for First Fridays for while," he said, adding he thanked market organizer Scott Wallace for his work and hoped the council would "continue to pay deference to [an] organization [Main Street] that promotes our downtown as a whole."

"We don't have individual concerns. We believe the rising tide floats all boats," he said.

After the meeting, Wallace denied getting "pushback" from downtown merchants.

He noted "the farmers market would bring in a lot more foot traffic, we are hoping, to the area."

He also said, however, that while the market might be expanded, it will not move. "We are going to be keeping it at Pennington," he said.

Wallace said he hopes to add vendors. The market had 15 vendors last year and he hopes to have 20 this time.

During the meeting, Dougherty told Watson: "We have a very strong relationship between [Havre de Grace] Main Street and the City, and I assure you it will remain intact."

Craig, meanwhile, thanked everyone for their hard work and for continuing to support the farmers market.

"While we couldn't agree to expand to another location, hopefully we opened the dialogue that the council is in support of a bigger, better farmers market," he said, adding officials "just have to decide what the best space is."

Councilman Joe Smith said he understands there were some challenges with recommendations to the market.

"A lot of it has to do with people not wanting to change," he said. "I look forward to the farmers market being where it is, I'm hoping we have lot more vendors. It's a great way to bring products in from our local farms and orchards and there's all kinds of things, bakery goods that are there, yarns and soaps."

"It's a great tradition that goes back a long time, so I definitely support this and appreciate all the efforts of Main Street," Smith said. "I hope people really do get out there and use it."

Councilman John Correri also said he appreciates what the farmers market does.

"They do a great job and they need all the help they can get," he said.

Councilwoman Barbara Wagner said the market makes her happy to have healthy, local food, and Dougherty said he liked it as an amateur gardener who is "not too successful on tomatoes myself."

"It's a great addition to the city," the mayor added.

Bond refinancing

The council also approved new utility pole and conduit tax rates Monday, which had been set to frozen this year. The rates will be $25.20 through 2015 and then slowly increase to $29.18 by 2025.

The city council also agreed to refinance bonds of up to $4 million, which elected officials said would save taxpayers money.

"This is important," Craig said. "At the end of the day, we thought a couple years ago was the lowest rate we'd ever get in a bond and it looks like they've gotten even better."

The council approved a car and truck show at American Legion on June 8 and a Relay for Life event at Harris Stadium on June 7 and 8.

Planning and Zoning Director Neal Mills said the city has issued 25 building permits so far this year, compared with 61 at the same time last year. There have been six for the third quarter, compared to 21 last year.

Public works director Larry Parks said a spring cleanup was happening April 20 and 27 at the city community center and a paper-shredding truck will be available April 27.

He also said construction began on an island on Bayview Drive and some other changes are being made to complete the traffic pattern changes. He warned residents to continue obeying signs about driving in the area.

Councilman David Glenn said the first phase of a traffic plan for Camilla Street is being done by Traffic Concept. He called it a "positive step forward regarding our attempt to alleviate congestion in our residential neighborhoods."

Wagner encouraged residents to come out and vote in the city elections, saying she knows historically turnout has been poor.

Smith said several candidate events are coming up, including the Bulle Rock Candidates' Night at 6:30 p.m. on April 23 and the Ontario-Otsego Positive Action Committee debate on May 1 at City Hall.

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