The Journal Register (Medina, NY)

June 27, 2011

CONFER Putting a tax on summer camp


The Journal-Register

MIDDLEPORT — In hopes of correcting some losses that have occurred in traditional tax sources, New York has been quite creative in acquiring new revenues since the Great Recession began. The most taxed state in the union has added or increased fees to hundreds of activities and purchases — everything from fishing to water bottles to cigarettes.

No one is safe. Not even non-profits. The state Legislature is in the process of allowing local jurisdictions to collect taxes from the undeveloped properties owned by the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and similar groups. The old law states that such lands are off-limits to property and school taxes. This was put into place because legislators believed at the time — and rightly so — that there was a trade-off of pricey revenues versus priceless benefit: These organizations provide a benefit to the community far greater than what could ever be gleaned from the taxes they would pay.

The language of the potential replacement law implies that undeveloped lands do not meet the criteria for tax exemption. Supposedly, property is being used by non-profits only if it supports facilities and other improvements. The legislators seem to have forgotten their childhood (or common sense) because undeveloped lands are necessary for the outdoor experience afforded by summer camp operators. Forests, fields, and lakes are where you camp, hike, boat and observe wildlife.

Those tasks cannot be accomplished in their purest state from inside a building or under a pavilion. To fully experience and appreciate the outdoors — and learn about the natural world, the abilities of themselves, and the power of teamwork — youth need to be in the most pristine environment possible, one afforded by a wild campground. Look no further than both of our local Boy Scout councils. They own sizable, mostly-undeveloped properties. Camp Dittmer is just over 300 acres while Scouthaven exceeds 400 acres. Endless forests and waterways like theirs are what camping is all about.

Many kids will be unable to savor the outdoors because of the financial burden the new tax will place on them and their families. When the camp is taxed by the local school or community, it will have to pass it on to the customers. Considering that many camps see only a few hundred visitors per summer and the property taxes will exceed thousands of dollars annually (especially if it is prime real estate like Camp Dittmer) each attendee will pay a substantial addition to the cost of his or her vacation. This will prove to be the breaking point, the fee that causes many lower-income families to say “no” to a week of camp for their son or daughter. Many of them can barely pull it off now.

Then again, suppose the camp can maintain its exempt status as allowed by the bill by improving the property. Sadly, that, too, will add significant costs to camping fees. The capital projects necessary to appease taxing jurisdictions will be burdensome, especially if the non-profit has to build facilities (and access) at the furthest point on the property. Infrastructure and new buildings and their outfitting and insurance cost a pretty penny. Remember, there’s a reason they’re called non-profits … they don’t have cash reserves to burn through.

The Senate recently passed its exemption-stripping bill by a wide margin (40-21-1). Since the Senate handily approved this measure it’s almost certain the Assembly will its — whether in 2012 or a special session later this year — especially due to the concerns that municipalities have over the existence of so-called “loopholes” if and when the state-mandated tax cap goes into play.

Passage can be stopped, though, with public action. If you value what you did at summer camp as a child and want your kids — and many others — to create similar memories, take the time add your voice to the debate and point out the many flaws of this bill to your assemblyman.