Wednesday, May 14, 2014

On Citizenship

In 2012, the Clarence Chamber of Commerce named Paul Stephen its "Citizen of the Year".  Such an honor did not go unnoticed by County Legislator Ed Rath, who took time out of the legislature's busy schedule to honor Stephen for his honor, nor by State Senator Mike Ranzenhofer, who sponsored that legislature's honoring of an honoree for an honor given by another entity.

No word yet on whether anyone proposed any sort of resolution honoring the honoree for being honored by the County Legislature or State Senate. I mean, it could be honor without end.

But to some people, citizenship and honor have a meaning beyond the silly presentment of proclamations and resolutions. What do citizenship and honor mean?

Most of what's written about Paul Stephen points to his success as a property developer in the town of Clarence, and to his stewardship of the Rock the Barn series benefiting Clarence/Newstead/Akron Meals on Wheels. Both are laudable, but they don't happen in a vacuum.

For all of it - for any of it - Stephen needs the support of the community, usually through its elected representatives. Take a look at the times Stephen has gone before town government for approval of his projects - while they are given due scrutiny, like any other project, he is routinely given bipartisan support and praise for his development projects. When he wants to expand Rock Oak, it passes unanimously, with minimum to no pushback.

Paul Stephen may have earned his money through hard work and capital investment, but it wouldn't have happened if government didn't support it.

Being a citizen is a two-way proposition. You have rights, and you have responsibilities. What makes Stephen "citizen of the year"?

It's a common refrain that part of the reason why Clarence's school budget is under stress has to do with our lack of commercial development - businesses paying taxes help alleviate some of the burden on homeowners when it comes to the school system. After all, businesses don't use the schools' services.  But Stephen's company deals almost exclusively in residential rental properties - none of these people pay school taxes directly, and to the extent anyone uses the schools' services, this creates pressure on the budget and taxation. Just take a look at the debate that took place at the Town Board in February 2012 with respect to a Stephen rental project.
Ralph Showalter asked who lives in an 800 sq. ft. house. Do we really want 800 sq. ft. housing people across the street from the high school in Clarence? We need to stop this now. These people will use services and not pay taxes. The school already has budgeting problems. This is against the Clarence standard of living. Nobody wants 800 sq. ft. housing across from the high school and next to Spaulding Lake. 

Stephen Development was set up in 1997 and its home office is in Lockport; in Niagara County. Rock Oak Holdings, LLC was created in 1998 and is also located in Lockport. Rock Oak Home Sales LLC? Created 2000, based in Lockport. Rock Oak Phase III, LLC? Created 2012 in Lockport, Niagara County. Rock Oak Plaza, LLC is also based in Lockport. Ditto Rock Oak Private Funding, LLC, Rock Oak West I, LLC, Rock Oak West, LLC, Rock Oak, LLC, Rock Oak Central, LLC, and Rock Garden Properties, LLC. Chautauqua County has a Lockport-based manufactured home landlord on its school tax rolls. Lakeside Park, LLC is based at the same address on South Transit

Why is the Clarence Chamber of Commerce honoring someone who can't be bothered to locate his business in the town of Clarence? What kind of citizenship is that? Because the profits that Stephen makes from his various businesses and concerns - whether they be the satellite dishes or the mobile home parks - get plowed into Niagara County coffers. 

Stephens' tenants - the residents of Rock Oak - pay ground rent, which includes taxes. Taxes are not itemized, and vary from home to home. Apparently, school tax STAR refunds are credited to Rock Oak, LLC, which then rebates them to individual homeowners (less a 2% handling fee). Therefore, higher school taxes would actually result in higher rebates to homeowners. Stephens increases the ground rents annually whether taxes go up or not. These increases are across-the-board so, unless the increase is astronomical, they're only peripherally connected to the tax increase. Assessments have remained stable since Stephen Development interests in Rock Oak commenced about 15 years ago. I'm trying to find out more about this dynamic.

Why would the "citizen of the year" do deliberate harm to the community and its schools by frightening his tenant seniors?

Last year, Stephen bankrolled the efforts to vote down the original school budget, and helped back Roger Showalter's and Jason Lahti's successful election to the school board. They were endorsed by the Clarence Taxpayers as being the candidates who would "respect the taxpayers" going forward. 

So shout it from the rooftops that Lahti and Showalter helped unanimously to approve the 2014-2015 school budget. There's some fringe whining, but there does not seem to be any sort of call to vote "no". 

Instead, Stephen is helping to back the anti-school candidacy of Mr. Worling to the town board. Worling's signs are mostly located on certain commercial properties, and in front of many Stephen-controlled properties. In a scene reminiscent of 2013, the internal closed-circuit information system at Rock Oak is advertising a pancake breakfast and shuttle buses to the polls on school board election day. 

Look closely at the language. It doesn't reference a budget vote; it references a "school board vote". This is consistent with the taxpayer group's invitation to meet Worling at Rock Oak one recent Saturday morning.  They are focusing on taking over the board

And that's ok, I guess, but what are they so dissatisfied about? The current board? With its budget that no one's complaining about? 

Certainly Paul Stephen and all his Niagara County-based landholding companies that do business in Clarence pay a lot in school taxes. As well they should, as quality schools are part of the Clarence equation. The other side of that equation is Clarence's comparatively low taxes, and the incredible efficiency with which the town and its schools comport themselves. These are part of the Clarence equation that allow Paul Stephen to develop run-of-the-mill modular homes on Kraus Road that will sell for upwards of $300,000.

But being a "good" citizen - much less "citizen of the year" doesn't just mean you go out and make money and play by the applicable rules. Shouldn't the standard be higher? Rock the Barn benefits Meals on Wheels, which, in turn, serves many of Stephen's tenants.

What part of good citizenship mandates helping to dismantle the school district?  A school district that is efficient, produces excellent results, is the pride of the community, and helps to maintain the town's popularity and property values? 

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