Schoharie County nixes Oorah’s bid for $17 million in tax-free loans

Above: Gilboa Supervisor Tony VanGlad, left, accepting a check from Oorah Camp Director Avraham Krawiec in July 2014. Photo courtesy of the Schoharie News. 

Schoharie County officials have denied an application from Oorah, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that runs two summer camps for Jewish children in Schoharie County, to help secure $17 to $20 million in tax-free loans from private banks.

On Friday, Oct. 16, the Schoharie County Board of Supervisors voted to deny Oorah’s application for a bond from the Schoharie County Capital Resource Corporation (SCCRC), the nonprofit branch of Schoharie County’s Industrical Development Agency (IDA).

“They definitely said ‘No’ on Friday,” Ronald S. Filmer, the chairman of Schoharie County’s IDA and CCRC, said today, referring to the Schoharie County Board of Supervisors' vote.

“Basically, they were concerned about the financing, the dollar amount of it," Filmer said. "They’re going to be borrowing money down the road themselves, and they were concerned about the bond value cap. There’s a cap on each county, and you can't exceed that.”

Oorah’s application sought to refinance $12 million in past debt and to build $6 million in upgrades at its Gilboa location, which houses a summer camp for girls. A second location, at the former Scotch Valley Ski Resort and Deer Run village in Jefferson, houses a summer camp for boys.

The refinancing package would have restructured existing debt from the organization's renovation of its Jefferson campsite. Oorah would have received the funds in form of a bond issued by a private bank, and no public funds would have been involved in the proposed project.

New debt would have financed new construction at the girl’s camp in Gilboa, including four new bunk houses, a 22,000-square-foot cafeteria and dining hall and staff housing. The additional sleeping quarters would allow approximately 100 more girls to attend the annual summer religious retreats.

Bill Cherry, Schoharie County’s treasurer, declined to comment for this story.

According to Filmer, Oorah has a right to challenge the board’s decision.

“An irrational decision”

According to Eliyohu Mintz, Oorah’s president, Oorah officials felt ambushed by the decision. He said that Oorah’s officials were told not to attend the meeting, and that in their absence the Schoharie County board of supervisors voted unanimously to deny Oorah’s application.

Oorah’s camp director, Avraham Krawiec, told the Watershed Post that the county’s vote would cost it $170,000, because one percent of the $17 million finance package would have been paid to the county itself.

“It was irrational decision,” said Wendy Kirwan, a spokesperson for Oorah.  

Packed public hearing

Public opinion also played a role in the board of supervisors’ decision, according to Filmer. The board of supervisor’s vote happened two days after a lively public hearing about Oorah’s application at the Gilboa Town Hall.

At the hearing on Wednesday, Oct. 14, over 50 residents from the towns of Gilboa and Jefferson filled the town hall to express concerns over the organization's finances, hiring practices and social impact. See a transcript of the hearing by clicking here.

Before the meeting, camp director Avraham Krawiec told the Watershed Post: "We're trying to upgrade our facilities to serve our kids better."

Not everyone was on board, however. Although commenting, "Oorah has been generous," Gilboa Town Supervisor Tony VanGlad said that he would like to "see a PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) or tax agreement on new structures."

Because of its classification as a religious charitable organization, Oorah is exempt from paying property taxes. VanGlad added that the existing buildings are covered by the tax exemption.

By far the biggest complaint from homeowners and neighbors at the hearing centered around the universally-panned driving methods of the buses that transport the campers, most of them from downstate, to the Gilboa campsite.

Krawiec said that he would pass along such concerns to the bus company that operates the buses, but suggested that residents call the state police if a driver is navigating in an unsafe manner.

Calling Oorah "a good neighbor," Krawiec pointed out that the organization has donated $7,500 per year for the past three years to the town of Gilboa. That money, Krawiec said before the meeting, has gone toward repairing the town hall's roof, among other items in the town.

"We donate to the town of Gilboa because we feel that we are a part of the community," Krawiec said.

Julia Reischel contributed reporting to this story.