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An 'unintended consequence' of Syracuse's land bank: less public school funding

Ellen Abbott
A Syracuse home that's been seized, renovated, and resold by the Greater Syracuse Land Bank.

The Syracuse school district could be down a million dollars because of an unintended consequence of vacant properties being sold to the land bank.

Property tax collection is a major source of funding for public schools, but there are thousands of properties in Syracuse that the property taxes aren’t being collected on – either because they’re vacant or the owner isn’t paying. For those properties, the city has been covering the portion that would go to schools out of its own pocket.

Syracuse created a land bank a few years ago to get more properties on the tax rolls – either by encouraging owners to pay up, or seizing the properties. The unintended consequence, the school district’s chief financial officer Suzanne Slack says, has been the properties in the land bank’s control aren’t generating property taxes, but the city isn’t covering the bill to the schools either.

"We did not have any idea that there’d be an impact on us,"  she said. "And we didn’t know during the year that those sales were having any impact on us. We found out kind of last minute at the end of the year."

The school district was shorted a half million dollars last year, according to Slack, but as the number of properties the land bank takes over grows, she says next year it will be a full million dollars less in revenue.

"That’s a lot of money, that’s 15 positions, that’s services we’re not providing to students. That’s another source of revenue that continues to go down or be flat," she said.

Once a property seized by the land bank is re-sold -- which is its mission -- the property start producing tax revenue again, but that process can take several months and the land bank currently controls hundreds of properties.

Slack and the district have begun talking with city hall about a solution, but none has been developed yet.

"I would hope that has they put together their budget for next year, now they’re becoming privy of what the full implications are, that they would try some how to make the district whole," she said, "because I don’t think their intention at all was to decrease our tax income."

While recent school budgets have been more balanced, funding has been a chronic problem for the Syracuse school district.