INDIANA AREA: Tax abatement approved for former Gorell site
September 10, 2013 11:00 AM
by CHAUNCEY ROSS

The shuttered Gorell replacement window and door plant in White Township has been approved for a tax break program intended as an incentive for a new owner or developer to put the property back in business.

The Indiana Area School District board of directors on Monday approved designation of the former Gorell Enterprises Inc. factory and grounds along Wayne Avenue as a Keystone Opportunity Expansion Zone.

As a KOEZ property, a new owner or developer would be exempt from paying real estate taxes on it from 2014 to 2023. For the current school year, the school tax bill for the property is $16,377, according to district business manager Jared Cronauer.

The designation was approved on a 7-1 vote with board President Thomas Harley, Alison Billon, Diana Paccapaniccia, Robert Gongaware, Brian Petersen, Walter Schroth and Robert Werner in favor and David Ferguson opposed.

Byron Stauffer Jr., the director of the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development, said the county has had as many as 300 acres of land designated to various forms of the Keystone Opportunity Zone program. Now, he said, about 12 to 15 properties continue to offer tax abatements under the KOZ.

Ferguson said the Gorell site location alone should attract a new buyer and disagreed with giving a tax break as an incentive.

“This is already established,” unlike past KOZ designations of undeveloped land, Ferguson said.

“Here we have the incentive to build something different, but you’re already on a major thoroughfare, and you’ve already got value, whether or not we’ve got a KOZ. I am not personally in favor of handing over that amount of tax revenue that they would have had to pay anyway.

“It sounds to me like a giveaway rather than a development plan,” Ferguson said.

Stauffer said KOZ gives Indiana County an edge against other nearby counties to attract potential new businesses.

“Armstrong County has just secured 300 acres of KOZ property,” he said. “The reality is that we are competing against our neighbors. I don’t think Three Ring (the current owner of the Gorell property) is necessarily trying to get out from paying taxes, but the incentive is not only the local real estate tax but … corporate net income tax, capital stock and franchise tax and sales and use tax.

“The benefits at the end of the day are the jobs that come about because of the KOZ. Hopefully those people live in Indiana Area School District … and pay taxes on their income.”

Stauffer said some KOZ designations have enabled developers to win additional funding for improving their properties, translating to higher values for real estate tax billing when the abatements expire.

“I don’t come here lightly, I’m a taxpayer, but I do see what happens statewide and what our competition is doing,” Stauffer said. “And we’re trying to disperse KOZ designations across the county as well.

“This is not a gloom and doom, (it’s not) that if you don’t do it nothing is ever going to happen there,” he said. “This particular piece of property is in disrepair. It has seen its life of deferred maintenance, the building is starting to fall apart — there is no electric service in there and the fire suppression system waterlines burst over the winter. It’s going to further deteriorate.

“To try to incentivize someone to do something, we’re at a crossroads with that facility.

“I do know from my personal experience with the program and what Indiana County Development Corporation has done … The program works. It is an investment,” Stauffer said. “So instead of losing money, I would think down the road you’ll gain that back in first couple of years when it goes back on the tax rolls.”

In other business, the board:

• Hired five additional teachers Monday, including two secondary mathematics instructors, a part-time music teacher and two part-time elementary teachers in response to vacancies and enrollment levels.

Three of the employees have worked in the past for the district.

Gerald Smith was named a math teacher for Indiana Area Senior High School at an annual salary of $64,312. He served as a long-term substitute there in 2012-13.

Melissa Cessna was hired as a math teacher to fill the position left open in mid-August when Holly Rougeaux was appointed district curriculum coordinator. Cessna’s salary will be $82,140.

Kristine Cook, an elementary teacher in the district many years ago, was hired as a part-time first-grade teacher for Eisenhower Elementary School at a salary of $32,156.

Katie Lakatosh was employed as a part-time kindergarten teacher at Horace Mann Elementary School at a salary of $31,052.50.

Margreta Nelson, a music teacher in the district in the past, was hired as a part-time music instructor at a salary of $42.114.12.

All were approved on a voice vote of the board. Director Robert Gongaware praised the new employees’ qualifications but said the salary levels are too high compared to other school districts.

The board also hired Melanie Odom as a para-educator at an hourly rate of $9 beginning today. At the same time, the board accepted the resignation of para-educator Mandi Gorton, effective Friday, and authorized the administration to post the job opening for applications.

The meeting opened in somber tribute to Mark Hess, the junior high physical education teacher and varsity swimming team coach, who died Friday.

Hess was preparing to coach the team for a 30th season and was said to have coached more than 500 athletes representing the 32 graduating classes from 1985 to 2016.

Paccapaniccia, the president of the high school swimmers boosters’ organization, said the team had decided to name their tournament in February as the Mark Hess Memorial Invitational in his memory.

“To the swimming community, Mark was more than numbers. He was family, and Mark made every effort to keep the swimming family involved in swimming,” Paccapaniccia said.

“Mark was a motivator. He was always running along the pool deck, cheering his swimmers on. And he had an uncanny ability to make eye contact with parents across the pool to communicate individual milestones and accomplishments.”

District Superintendent Dale Kirsch commended administrators who worked during the weekend to prepare the staff and students who returned to Hess’s classes Monday.

“I also want to commend the staff at the junior high and senior high, who had the most contact with Mr. Hess. It was a tough day for them and it will be a tough week,” he said. “But following Mr. Hess’s example, they are concerned about the students and that’s what their focus will be.”

Werner said he was impressed by a former student’s comment that Hess would never call out a student who had made a mistake.

“That’s a lesson I could hear once in a while — one that teachers could hear, businessmen, school board members, all of us. For a student to make that statement means something about that man’s character.”

And an impromptu memorial display on the fence of Mack Park “shows that our community lost a great guy,” Werner said.

Harley opened the meeting calling Hess’s death a tragedy that touched everyone in Indiana Area School District, from students to teachers to the school board.

“What a noble man,” Harley said. He called for a moment of silence in memory of Hess before the board undertook its business.

• Approved a list of credit card holders and building credit accounts and credit limits totaling $161,000 for the district procurement card program. Use of cards would enable the district to qualify for discounts and rebates for some purchases, Cronauer told the board.

• Approved the planned course of study for English classes Gothic Literature, Science Fiction, Creative Writing and Page to Stage Comparative Film Studies.

• Approved a change order in the energy-efficiency improvement project managed by Constellation Energy, adding $21,410 to the cost of the project related to planning the removal of asbestos from the elementary schools. The cost would be taken from a contingency fund connected with the project.

• Agreed to waive the student admission fee to the varsity football game and homecoming on Sept. 27 for elementary students taking part in a planned community pep rally at the event.

• Approved an agreement between Armstrong/Indiana Mental Health Retardation Program and the district for services provided in the 2013-14 school year.

• Approved participation in the State Farm Celebrate My Drive contest.

• Took up discussion of revising the district policy restricting participation of home schooled students in activities such as Indiana County Technology Center, sports and specialized courses in the schools, such as music.

District residents Rodney Allshouse, Denise Botsford and John Scherf asked the board during the public comment period to open the opportunities to home schooled students, in part because their parents are district taxpayers.

Botsford asked the board to change the requirement that a home schooled student must enroll in the IDEAL cyber-education program to qualify for attending ICTC. Enrolling in IDEAL, she said, conflicts with beliefs of parents who choose to incorporate religious education in their home schooling program.

Board members were receptive to the requests, which the parents had earlier presented to the board’s personnel and policy committee. By consensus, the board directed the committee to make the changes.

• Also heard during the public comment period from former board member Douglas Steve, who challenged the accuracy of elementary school enrollment statistics cited by Harley at a meeting in August.

Quoting from the district’s enrollment reports for each September from 2007 to this year, Steve said they showed an increase of 113 students since 2007 and four students since 2012.

Harley said at the earlier meeting that enrollment was up by 20 to 30 students over last year, and by more than 180 since 2007.

Harley explained following the meeting Monday that he used enrollment figures for October each year and the projected numbers for next month, saying they more accurately represent the “stabilized” figures that emerge after Indiana University of Pennsylvania faculty, staff and graduate students settle with their families in the Indiana area.

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