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Former dewatering plant site

An aerial view of the former Hudson River sediment dewatering plant site in Fort Edward is seen. Fort Edward greatly increased the property’s assessment in the lead-up to dredging, then failed to prepare for its inevitable decline in value.

Lots of questions have not been answered about the current ownership of the former dewatering site in Fort Edward, and town Supervisor Terry Middleton is at least partly to blame for the confusion.

But apart from the strange case of the nonprofit local property development corporation that has taken possession of the site, the situation is straightforward: Fort Edward greatly increased the property’s assessment in the lead-up to dredging, then failed to prepare for its inevitable decline in value.(tncms-inline)730967a6-2699-4bc0-a493-5174f93e365e[0](/tncms-inline)

Now the town, village and school district are paying the price for the path they chose. In some cases, the people in charge now are not the people who were in charge then. School Superintendent Dan Ward came on the scene just two and a half years ago, for instance — replacing Jeffery Ziegler — so Ward inherited the situation.

But everyone in charge at the time understood what they were doing when they created this situation. The dewatering site went from open fields assessed at well under $1 million to an industrial plant assessed at more than $75 million. Even if that enormous increase was justified, acting as if it would stay at that level was not.

The Fort Edward government entities that reaped the tax benefits of the increased assessment should have anticipated that the assessment would be challenged and that it was likely to fall as soon as dredging ended. They should have been conservative with their temporary tax windfall.

GE built the dewatering plant and leased the land where it was sited. When, at the end of the project, GE challenged the assessment, it was cut by more than half, and GE was owed refunds as a result.

From 2016 onward, WCC — the owner of the land — was responsible for the property taxes but didn’t pay them. Last week, WCC reached an agreement with Fort Edward officials to have the assessments further reduced on the two parcels, from about $49 million to about $6 million.

While WCC wasn’t paying its taxes, Washington County was covering them. Now that the assessments have been reduced a second time, the Fort Edward village and school district are going to have to repay Washington County hundreds of thousands of dollars still owed.

Fort Edward officials seem to be hoping for some sort of financial forgiveness from the county, but there is no justification for that. The county should be repaid in full.

It has been even more clear for the past three years, since the end of dredging and while WCC wasn’t paying its bills, that Fort Edward could not rely on that revenue. Three years ago was the time to recognize the crisis and react to it, not now.

Perhaps this fiasco will force the school district to look closer at a consolidation with a neighboring district than it has before. Perhaps it will force village leaders to consider a dissolution and merger with the town. But however it is done, the bills have to be paid and they are (mostly) Fort Edward’s responsibility.

It is true that, under the settlement, WCC will be responsible for paying a portion of the back taxes to the county, and that brings us to the strange and unexplained case of the Fort Edward Local Property Development Corp.

Apparently, this nonprofit was formed in late December of last year and WCC donated the dewatering property to it, but Supervisor Terry Middleton didn’t bother to tell other county supervisors about all this. They’ve only learned of the situation during the course of the last month, and most of their questions, such as what the new entity will do with the property, have not been answered.

Also, since this is a nonprofit, are any property taxes going to be paid on this land going forward? Despite the assessment reductions, these taxes are important to the local community.

Middleton’s son sits on the board of this nonprofit. So does Neil Orsini, a Town Board member. There is no excuse for their secretiveness about this deal, which should never have been entered into without public discussion and the public endorsement of town, village and school officials.

Perhaps, by the time this editorial runs, some of these questions will have been cleared up, because a meeting on the subject was scheduled for Friday, March 15. We hope Middleton, Orsini and the other parties have been forthcoming. If not, the citizens of Fort Edward should turn out in force to insist they speak.

Meanwhile, any resentment in Fort Edward over the large bills it owes should be put aside. This was a hole dug by local officials who knew that, someday, it would have to be filled in. That day has come.

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Local editorials represent the opinion of the Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Editor Ken Tingley, Projects Editor Will Doolittle, Publisher/Controller/Operations Director Brian Corcoran and citizen representatives Connie Bosse, Barb Sealy and Jean Aurilio.

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