Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bluestone Pipeline Now Pays More Than 6% of Property Taxes in Rustic Sanford, NY

Plucked from the web: Tax Assessor for the New York Town of Sanford (and adjoining Windsor) Becky Ottens.
Many people assume the shale gas technological revolution has so far had zero impact in New York State — except as the acknowledged source for much, much political turmoil.

But that's not all true everywhere. 

Leaving aside the consumption side, where there has actually been quite a bit of rarely acknowledged economic and environmental benefit, mostly for urban New Yorkers, here's a story about a very local property tax impact involving just the New York end of the small, shale-gas-triggered Bluestone Gathering Pipeline, coming out of Pennsylvania.

Let me just try to break all this down without boring you to even further tears.

This morning, I figured out how to look up the 2013 final assessment roll for the easternmost Town of Sanford in Broome County, NY.  This is a computer-generated sheaf of paper that's typically spit out in the summer of each year, then used as the basis for fall school tax bills, and then used again as the basis for town and county tax bills, which are generally due in January of the next calendar year.

The reason I did this is because something actually happened in Sanford between 2012 and 2013.  The Bluestone pipeline — originally proposed July 2011, then green-lighted for its NY end Sept. 2012 — was built in time to start flowing natural gas through to that NY end in the Town of Sanford as of May 2013. 

At 20 inches in diameter for much of its length, Bluestone now runs a total of 44 miles from the Marcellus Shale drilling hot zone in northeastern PA, northerly into NY.  But only about 9 miles of it are in NY, all in Sanford.  There in NY, Bluestone tees into an inter-connect with the larger Millennium Pipeline, which moves natural gas much further in the direction of greater NYC and other well-developed points beyond.  It's true that the molecules of natural gas in a transmission pipeline are generally all mixed together from multiple sources, but I think it's fair to say that virtually all of Bluestone's product is fully fracked shale gas coming out of PA — where that kind of drilling has always been kept legal, and has even been welcomed by many.  None of Bluestone's natgas originates out of NY.  Instead, we New Yorkers — even die-hard anti-frackers — simply play the role of helping pay the ultimate tab for this whole enterprise, by buying the stuff directly or indirectly as consumers and burning it, without protest or controversy.

People down in the Greater Binghamton area may not have taken much notice of Bluestone, but the town tax assessor in Sanford, Becky Ottens, certainly did.  This past fall, payers of school taxes in Sanford should have also noticed for the first time that something was up.  Come January, when the town and county tax bill comes due, these folks should also be in for another pleasant surprise.

Here's why:

Bluestone is now the assessed taxpayer for two newly created accounts related to their new pipeline.  There are two accounts because the lay of the pipeline in Sanford means its taxes have to be split across two school districts — some for the Lumberjacks at Deposit Central, and some for the Black Knights at Windsor Central.

(Note that, in New York, we pretty much tax every kind of real estate, including natural gas wells, and natural gas pipelines situate within purchased rights of way, both of which are on land that's usually technically owned by somebody else.  We tax everything, that is, so long as the real estate isn't owned by government or a not-for-profit, or so long as the development doesn't involve a tax-break program for which the politicians get to take credit for progress.)

Becky Ottens'
total assessed value for Bluestone in Sanford is $10,578,120.  All of this value is taxable for county, town, and school taxes, and none of it has been made exempt by any kind of economic development handout from state or local authorities.  Converted to "full market value" — using Sanford's 60% equalization rate, which means assessments are by local practice running at 60% of actual full value — this shows the town assessor is calculating the in-the-ground infrastructure as worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $17.6 million.  (Getting sleepy yet?)

Now, then, for the context: 

What is the total taxable value (not the total assessed value, due to the various exemptions) of the Town of Sanford?  For county taxes, total taxable is $157,635,235, town taxable is $161,522,490, and school taxable is $163,179,811.  So that means the pipeline — again, $10,578,120, totally taxable — is now covering between about 6.5% and 6.7% of the money Sanfordians hand over annually in county, town, and school property taxes.

It also means that everybody else in Sanford — even any anti-frackers that might be holding out down there — should, from now on, be paying significantly less than they would be without the pipeline. 

(This is assuming the local budgets didn't jump up in lockstep in order to eat all of the now-enlarged tax base, which is always possible, but I just don't know how to check this just yet.  Somebody else will have to do the work of ascertaining just how much Deposit Central and Windsor Central school tax bills have already dropped this past fall for the average taxpayer, and just how much the average Town of Sanford town and county property tax bill will drop when it comes due in January 2014.  As I said, a lot of that depends on the school and town budgets, and the consequent levies, and I just don't have my hands on that stuff. 
Maybe Becky Ottens or Town Supervisor Dewey Decker knows.)

Note lastly that there are also two vacant parcels on Pazzelli Road in Sanford, said to be worth $150K at full market value, that are assessed to Bluestone as owner outright.  But I'm not counting these because, for these, Bluestone is simply picking up more or less the same tax bill as was paid by whichever Sanfordian owned that land previously.

The pipeline is different, though.  It didn't exist, previously, to generate taxes.

It's true that Bluestone represents just the tip of the overall shale gas iceberg, even just the tip of just the Marcellus shale gas iceberg.  But it's one of the few small portions that have already managed to encroach themselves into New York — a state where there really should be license plates offered that read "Frackless Since 2008."

Whether you're freaked out, open minded, or gung ho on the fracking question, it's already a fact that Bluestone has delivered a net positive shale gas impact in Sanford.  There's more where that came from, but, to get it, New York's governor is going to have to bite the political bullet, coming from his left, and finally issue regulations covering the drilling of these new kinds of wells.

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