Three Suspects Arrested for Burglary on Drake Road
- Category: Village Voices
- Published on 15 February 2017
- Written by Joanne Wallenstein
On Tuesday, February 14, 2017, the Scarsdale Police Department arrested the three young men and charged them with Burglary 2nd Degree, a Class C Felony, in connection with the burglary of a home on Drake Road, late in the evening on Febrary 13th.
Orgen Hoxha, age 21, of Overlook Terrace, New York, NY
Armand Selmani, age 23, of Northfield Terrace, Clifton, NJ
Gramos Muhaxheri, age 22, of 3444 Knox Place, Bronx, NY
The arrests are the result of the combined efforts of a Multi-Jurisdictional Law Enforcement Task Force that includes the Scarsdale PD, New Rochelle PD, Greenburgh PD, Eastchester PD, Greenwich CT PD and the Westchester District Attorney's Investigators.
All three defendants were arraigned in the Scarsdale Justice Court and remanded to the Westchester County Jail on $100,000 bail for a future court appearance.
These arrests are part of an ongoing investigation. Additional information will be provided in a future press release.
Voters Choice Party Challenges Non-Partisan Party Slate for Scarsdale Mayor and Trustees
- Category: Village Voices
- Published on 07 February 2017
- Written by Joanne Wallenstein
(Updated 2-9) An independent slate of candidates for Scarsdale Mayor and Scarsdale Village Trustee have filed a petition to challenge the candidates selected by Scarsdale's Citizen's Nominating Committee in the March 2017 election for the Board of Trustees of Scarsdale Village.
The slate is led by Robert Berg who is running for Scarsdale Mayor, with Brice Kirkendall-Rodriguez, Carlos Ramirez and Robert Selvaggio for Village Trustees.
The newly formed party, named "The Scarsdale Voters Choice Party," is challenging the Village's Non-Partisan system which calls for the selection of candidates for the Village Board by an elected group of nominators who vet and interview candidates behind closed doors. The Voter's Choice Party promises to "usher grassroots democracy" back to Scarsdale by offering residents a choice of candidates to vote for in a general election.
The party's new website charges that recent "Village mayors and trustees have failed to carry out their fiduciary duties ... and failed to oversee Village operations and staff," and decry the "mishandled second town-wide revaluation" and "perennially crumbling streets. " They promise to "act openly" and bring "transparency" to Village government.
Absent from the statement are positions on some of the most pressing issues now before the Village, including plans for an extensive overhaul of the Scarsdale Library, development at the Freightway site, historical preservation and land use laws, storm water and sewer maintenance, renovations to Fire Station #1, sustainability initiatives and more.
Any resident who wishes to seek a position as mayor or a trustee can gather the necessary signatures and file a petition by the deadline to appear on the pre-printed ballot. Challengers to the non-partisan system can also run as write-in candidates.
This particular slate was formed around an almost two year battle around the second tax revaluation which culminated in an Article 78 proceeding against the Village signed by two of the party candidates among the 151 participants. The suit asks the Village to roll back the assessments to 2014 values, though the Village has no legal means of doing so. If they fail to roll it back, the suit asks that the 151 participants be paid back the difference between their 2014 and 2016 tax payments. It is not clear where these funds would come from and if the balance of taxpayers would be assessed to meet the payments.
The Article 78 was signed by Mayra Kirkendall-Rodriguez, wife of candidate Brice Kirkendall-Rodriguez for the Scarsdale Committee for Fair Assessments. She was the leader of the campaign to void the 2016 revaluation, which according to the suit, "resulted in a substantial shift of the tax burden to those larger properties to which their owners objected. Such systematic undervaluation of larger homes for the purpose of shifting the tax burden to smaller burden violates both the constitutional rights of owners of Scarsdale's smaller homes to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and under Article I, Section 11 of the New York Constitution, Equal Protection Clause and the statutory rights of Scarsdale home owner to be assessed at a uniform percentage of value as mandated by Section 305(2) of New York Real Property Tax Law."
In the process, for the last two years, Rodriguez and her followers filed FOIL requests for thousands of emails and spent countless hours building their case against the Village Board, Village Manager's Office, Village Assessor and John Ryan. The Village Attorney and staff had to defend the Village and review these emails before they were released which strained their resources. The controversy hampered the ability of the Village Board to deal with little else on their agenda. Among the charges in the suit are that the Village gave unfair tax breaks to public officials. However the tax rolls shows that Berg, Kirkendall-Rodriguez and Ramirez also enjoyed reductions in their assessments from 2014 to 2016. Although most agree that the revaluation model was sloppy and haphazard, it's not clear who was damaged or received favorable treatment.
If there is no settlement of the Article 78 lawsuit before the election on March 21, the new trustees and Mayor could have a say in its outcome and potentially benefit from the settlement.
Berg, who is now running for Mayor, is a former President of the Scarsdale Forum and in that role he chaired the Citizen's Nominating Committee, a group that he is now criticizing as secretive. Berg also championed the first revaluation in 2014 and in the summer of 2016 he served on the Board of Assessment Review and heard grievances from the 2016 revaluation. Before the second revaluation was filed, he repeatedly warned that it was a "train wreck waiting to happen."
This is not the first time Berg has sought to overturn the status quo. In 2013 he led a coalition of residents to successfully defeat the first Scarsdale School budget to fail in 43 years. He rented a list of the names and addresses of 3,200 households without children in the school and urged residents to vote against the budget. He galvanized voters to come to the polls, eliciting 1,720 "no votes," in an election that normally only attracts about 700 total voters.
At the time, Berg said, "The $1 million taxpayers are being asked to dole out this year for the proposed High School Wellness Center is "a pig in a poke." He contended that SHS already had "more than ample physical fitness facilities." Since that time, funds for the new Wellness Center were raised by the Scarsdale Schools Foundation, Maroon and White and a private donation from the Madoff family. The fitness center is now under construction.
Berg and Mitchell Gross also criticized the administration for holding what they called an illegal reserve fund for health insurance claims and ultimately pressured Superintendent Dr. McGill to retire a year earlier than planned. In his surprise announcement Dr. McGill said that detractors had called for him to retire as "a quid pro quo for a Yes vote on the budget next week," which was the second attempt to pass the 2013-14 school budget. The state legislature later gave Scarsdale permission to reinstate the health reserve fund as a hedge against medical claims from the district's self-insured health plan.
The formation of the Scarsdale Voters Choice Party was cheered by some residents who believe they are over-taxed and unfairly assessed. They hope that the new slate will bring strong fiscal management – and perhaps reduced property taxes -- to the Village.
Others who have invested time and energy in Scarsdale's Non-Partisan system defended Scarsdale's system of governance.
Scarsdale's current Mayor Jon Mark discussed the non-partisan system with members of this year's Citizen's Nominating Committee saying,
"The 2016 revaluation, initiated with only good intentions did not work out as planned. Going forward, I have little doubt that any subsequent revaluation will be better managed and executed. However, to make the leap from this one experience – as significant as it was and still is – to a conclusion that would throw out our entire non-partisan system is in my mind is unwarranted. The road forward is to do a better job on the next revaluation – whenever it occurs. I do not believe that the decision-making process – whether it be about the next revaluation or another major decision affecting the Village, the proposed Library renovation to name another example -- is best served by partisans who have a pre-conceived notion of what the results of the decision-making process should be."
About partisan politics, Mark said, "Partisanship will not bring us together as a community. It will not produce consensus solutions to shared problems. Partisanship means, by definition, taking sides. Under a partisan system candidates are elected because they take positions on issues and by doing so win elections by garnering the support of those who agree with them. Once in office, those officials may say they will act for the benefit of all citizens in the jurisdiction, but the reality may be quite different. Having been put in office by their partisan constituency, the minds of the officials may be closed to countervailing views and legitimate concerns of other community members on a particular issue. Following a partisan framework would have the potential of setting one group of residents against another -- a dynamic that in my view does not benefit the governance of a Village in which we all share a substantially common interest."
In a letter to Scarsdale10583.com, former Scarsdale Village Mayor Peter Strauss who support the CNC slate put this new development into historical context:
The announcement that the current slate of the Citizens Nominating Committee (CNC) nominees for Mayor and Trustees is being opposed by another full slate is unusual but not surprising. My concern is the nature and stated position of the group calling itself the "Voters' Choice Party". First a little history:
While the election of Mayor and Board of Trustees has always been open to challenge by other nominees, such a challenge has seldom been exercised by a full, or nearly full, slate of Trustees and Mayor. The last time I can recall that happening was in 1999, when a CNC slate led by Mayor Mark Bench was challenged by a responsible, talented, and long active group led by Lester Levin. It was a spirited campaign with the CNC slate supported by a large group organized by Neil Bicknell. I was part of that latter group and vividly recall election night when we had to count and recount the 2,000 plus votes. For the first time in over 70 years a candidate opposing the CNC slate, Joseph Zock, was elected – by one vote! Joe subsequently served two full terms (four years) as a responsible trustee.
Compare that situation with what we face today – a CNC slate is opposed by the Voters' Choice Party, two of whose Trustee candidates are themselves participants in the Article 78 proceeding against the Village, and whose candidate for Mayor has been a persistent supporter of that proceeding against the Village. To have potential Village Board members who, if elected, could influence the outcome of a lawsuit to their own benefit is an unsavory situation.
My extensive experience with the Village staff, and my personal knowledge of Dan Hochvert, who served as a Trustee when I was Mayor, convince me that a Board refreshed by the new CNC nominees, led by Dan Hochvert and our Village Manager is the appropriate way forward."
Both slates of candidates filed their petitions with a minimum of 100 signatures on February 7, 2017 and each candidate will be required to provide a signed certificates of acceptance to the Village Clerk by February 17, 2017.
In order to decide which party would receive the top line of the ballot, Village Clerk Donna Conkling tossed a coin and the Citizens Nominating Party won, which means that their slate of candidates will be on the first line of the pre-preinted ballot.
Have comments? Please include your first and last name.
Petitioners Call for Village to Negotiate a Settlement to the Article 78
- Category: Village Voices
- Published on 26 January 2017
- Written by Joanne Wallenstein
Petitioners who filed an Article 78 proceeding to invalidate the 2016 revaluation showed up at the Village Board meeting on Tuesday January 24 to ask the Board of Trustees what action they would take and to request that the Village seek to settle the suit rather than spend tax dollars defending the assessment roll.
The Mayor opened the meeting by saying that since the Article 78 was pending litigation, neither he nor the Village Attorney would comment on it. However, the petitioners repeatedly asked the Board to tell them how they would address the suit.
In the public comments portion of the meeting many spoke out about the revaluation, scolding the board and repeating claims made at prior meetings.
Greg Soldatenko, of Lenox Place, who introduced himself as "Co-chair for the Committee for Fair Assessments" said that "Ryan and Albanese "cooked the books" to arrive at the assessment roll. ... Albanese took good care of formerly and presently elected officials.... This has resulted in an erosion in trust." He then called for the Village to "release all the remaining FOILED emails," saying, "There are no national security issues here ."
Mayra Kirkendall Rodriguez spoke at length, saying, "I am here to implore you not to spend taxpayer dollars. Sit down with our lawyer Robert Bernstein and resolve this amicably." She continued, "I have lost all faith in our process....Clean up Scarsdale government.... this is what residents have written me... I have been witness to horrible injustice since the Ryan reval train wreck came to town. I am an accidental activist. Every time I think I cannot go on I get another phone call...Your fiduciary responsible is to protect everyone-- not those who curry favor." About the petition she said, "I do not know if the court will rule in our favor... Simply because we live in small houses – we are not children of a lesser God."
Phil Moresco said "Don't waste a penny of our hard earned tax dollars. No punitive action is sought. ...Undo a wrong."
Susan Grosz of Carthage Road said "I live on less than ¼ of an acre. There is no bathroom on the first floor. My assessment went up 10% ... Don't contest the Article 78."
Billy Jacobs of 41 Drake Road said he has lived here since 1987 and served on many Village committees and commissions. He said, "I am disturbed that I have to be here tonight. It is time for answers. Why was the reval done? It made no difference to the Village as they collect the same revenue. The Village tried to do the right thing – the Village tried to be fair. But our Village was exploited, harmed. It is now a scandal beyond which I have never seen. In good faith, mistakes are made. That's why there are erasers on the ends of pencils. I am not here to place blame or point fingers. Nothing has been done to solve the problem. This is not acceptable. Many are frustrated by inaction and have taken action against the village. None of us did so with glee or to point blame or to obtain undue rewards. The Article 78 is an extraordinary remedy but it is simple. There is no doubt that what happened was unfair and was a mistake. Since everyone knows that material harm occurred it is time to take action and fix the problem. Either agree to the plaintiff's requests or sit down with our counsel and negotiate a settlement. If you don't do that the Village will become mired in expensive litigation and scandal. Tell us what you are going to do tonight. You are the only people that can solve the problem now. Tell us tonight what you think your choices are and what you will do now to address this."
Brice Kirkendall-Rodriguez said "I have worked in software development for 25 years. It is human nature to over value work we did ourselves. The idea of suing ourselves seemed at first preposterous. Think of it as an intervention.... Scarsdale has weathered significant controversies in its past. We will get through this one too....This was a poorly conceived an executed attempt to improve on the Tyler Revaluation. Find an amicable settlement so that we can move on." (see his full comment below.)
Robert Berg reminded the Board that he urged them not to go through with the Ryan reval. He said, "I begged you to pull the plug while you still had the chance. Now as a taxpayer I am very concerned how you will react. The Village assessment roll is a set of unverified evaluations. I am worried that you will spend tens of thousands defending a roll that can't be defended."
Michael Levine, a mathematician and a statistician who has studied both revaluations pointed out that if the Village did a rollback, people who were unhappy with their assessments in the prior roll would not have had an opportunity to grieve, which is their legal right. He said, "If the Ryan reval is rolled back, some will have been denied an opportunity to grieve. Those over-assessed by Tyler who did not grieve will potentially be affected by a rollback. I don't think that a settlement should deprive people of a right to grieve."
Despite the fact that the Village has acknowledged that the 2016 revaluation was poorly executed, the Mayor maintains that the Village Assessor is the only person with the legal authority to file a tax roll, and once it is filed, the Village does not have the legal power to voide it or roll it back to a prior assessment roll. He believes that the legal path to contest an assessment is to file a grievance or initiate a SCAR proceeding.
The 151 petitioners, represeting 2.6% of Scarsdale taxpayers, are requesting that the Village rollback assessments to the prior tax roll. If not, they are requesting that "any property owners in the Town/Village of Scarsdale who paid more than their fair share of property tax as determined by what they would have had to pay had there been a rollback of the assessment roll should be entitled to receive refunds of excess taxes paid." From the draft of the petition it is not clear if all residents or just the participants in the Article 78 would be entitled to refunds -- and for how many years going forward they would receive these refunds. For one year? Or until there is a subsequent revaluation?
We spoke to a few attorneys who were familiar with NYS tax law. One, who favored the petitioners, hoped that a judge would negotiate a settlement that would allow the Village to go back to the adjusted 2014 tax roll and also assign a grievance period for those who wished to dispute their assessments. The legal grievance period is proscribed by NYS law and neither the Village nor the assessor appears to have the power to change these dates.
Another said, "If only the participants in the Article 78 are entitled to refunds these property owners are essentially demanding that the rest of the Village residents "pick up the tab" for changes in their tax bills, even if the reval is not rolled back. Isn't that a what a grievance proceeding is designed to accomplish? If these residents grieved successfully, they have no injury. If they elected not to grieve, or unsuccessfully grieved, they shouldn't be allowed a second bite at the apple. And now they are looking for the Village not to defend this lawsuit and just to settle with them ... i.e., pay them out and afford them special treatment outside of the grievance process."
Looking at the facts, a third attorney suggested that perhaps a court would find that the filing was "arbitrary and capricious," and would order the rollback to the previous assessment roll as adjusted by grievances.
On a practical note, if the court ordered the reinstatement of the adjusted 2014 tax roll, the Village might very well be overwhelmed with lawsuits from those whose tax assessments were higher in 2014. These residents might file appeals and argue that the court decision unfavorably impacted them and ask for rebates for overpayment. The 2014 revaluation was based on market values for luxury homes that were much higher in 2012-13 than what they are today. Rolling back a tax roll might cause years of litigation, uncertainty and chaos in the real estate market.
Other solutions to the assessment question have been discussed in the past year including the formation of an ad hoc committee on revaluation to investigate best practices in property assessment and to make recommendations to the Village on next steps. The Trustees have also considered changes in the staffing of the assessors office – however since this is a personnel matter these meetings were held in executive session and the outcome is unknown. Ultimately the answer might be a third revaluation by a firm that has the trust of the community.
With elections for Mayor and Village Trustees just a few weeks away, it is doubtful whether this Board will move forward on any of these proposals. However, they will be forced to either negotiate a settlement on the Article 78 or litigate to defend the revaluation, both of which will consume man hours and taxpayer funds.
Care to comment? Please include your first and last name.
Comments submitted by Brice Kirkendall-Rodriguez:
I have worked in software development 25 years. Understanding human behavior is a critical part of developing successful products. Stamford Business School Professor Nir Eyal is a renowned leader in this area and has written extensively on building habit forming products and the methods behind the creation of Facebook, LinkedIn, the iPhone, and Google Search.
One of the critical steps in the habit-forming cycle is called "Investment". It is predicated on the idea that we attribute more value to something we have helped create. For example, lotteries sell more tickets when buyers pick their own numbers. IKEA succeeds in part because customers attribute more value to furniture once they have assembled it themselves. In fact, it is human nature to overvalue work we do ourselves relative to the same work performed by others. Thus, even though the contract price for the Ryan reval was only 20% of what we paid for Tyler, we give the Ryal result equal weight because of the investment of time on the project by the current village staff and Board of Trustees.
Yes, there was dissatisfaction expressed following the Tyler reval. It was the first mass appraisal in over 40 years and no one in Village Hall had any benchmark by which to compare the level of media coverage, scrutiny and outrage expressed by the most-impacted residents. It seemed painful and unprecedented and there was a strong desire to seek a remedy.
Enter John Ryan. He offered a solution that was anticipated to fix the problems of the first reval without disrupting what had worked with Tyler. It was described as a "tweak". The Assessor, Village Manager and Board of Trustees then began to invest themselves in the endeavor. There were vendor negotiations, public hearings, and private meetings. This collaborative investment by village officials served to negate the impact of dissent by NY State ORPTS and some residents, because certainly those engaged in making Ryan a reality couldn't ALL be wrong. The Ryan reval became a village habit.
Right up until June of last year we could have quit. However, this became a whole lot harder when the release of the tentative role created at least 1,000 beneficiaries, those who saw a 10% or more drop in their Assessed Values. This also gave reason for the Board of Trustees to feel more invested in final acceptance. What could you possibly say to these homeowners? We heard the Village Attorney cite 40-year-old case law that gave the impression that the Board of Trustees had no legal authority to kick the habit. Scarsdale had become a Ryan Junkie. Those 1,000 beneficiaries were now an existential threat and on more than one occasion it was suggested that doing the right thing and invalidating Ryan was not only without legal precedent but would invite legal challenge.
During my months of effort of examining the Ryan model and its impact on our community, I have met hundreds of Scarsdale homeowners. Not all detractors of Ryan were hurt by Ryan. I have met some homeowners that had a million dollars removed from their home valuations. They have told me privately that they know the number is wrong, but shrugged and considered it a random life perk like the Monopoly card stating "Bank error in your favor, collect $200". Others were hurt by Ryan but felt they couldn't contest it legally because they are public figures or have a relationship with the village that might create a conflict of interest. The point is that support for the Article 78 action to invalidate Ryan extends well beyond the official list of litigants. At this point, I doubt any informed person in Scarsdale whether or not she benefited from Ryan now believes that he acted in Scarsdale's interests. To suggest that there is legal jeopardy to invalidating Ryan is probably a straw man argument and a sign of a habit that has veered into the territory of self-destructive or in this case village-destructive behavior.
Those of us participating in the Article 78 proceeding against the village did not engage in this lightly. The idea of suing ourselves seemed at first to be preposterous. However, consider this an intervention! The Board of Trustees and Village management are so invested and so hooked on the outcome of Ryan, that it has become blinded to the reality. We have learned in this very hall that there is no available mathematical evidence to support the valuations allegedly created by Ryan. The Article 78 filing provides ample exhibits documenting arbitrary changes made to component multipliers to alter home values when they did not suit the objectives of Ryan's model. Some of the exhibits include the Assessor's own emails suggesting that some public officials were accorded special treatment to receive a more favorable assessment of their own homes.
Last summer, the Board was told you have no legal foundation on which to invalidate Ryan. Problem solved...now you do. Article 78 presents you with the legal foundation you were previously missing. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that invalidating Ryan puts the matter of fair home valuation to rest. However, it does return us to a set of valuations that proportionally hold up better under scrutiny and have already been tested through two rounds of grievances.
The 2015 role is a much better foundation from which we can now have a frank Village-wide conversation about the way we value homes and levy taxes. We should consider all of the issues raised by both Tyler and Ryan. Does a dramatic increase in a tax assessment lead to a reduction in property value? Probably. Should we advocate changes in Albany to modernize state assessment standards and oversight? Most definitely. Can we achieve the right balance of taxes and services in this village, such that we don't drive homeowners away after children have left the nest? I hope so.
Scarsdale has weathered significant controversies in its past. We will get through this one too. I believe in the talents of our residents and the passion of our volunteers in public service. I do think we attract capable people to our school and village payrolls. I believe in the promise of Scarsdale and do think we have it within us to be a model of good governance and transparency. Let us recognize this Ryan episode for what it is, a poorly conceived and executed attempt to improve upon the Tyler reval that instead, became a cure worse than the disease. Support for it, has become a destructive habit, and those still addicted to its endorsement have been victimized by the psychology of the investment effect gone wrong. I urge the Board of Trustees to break the habit of support for Ryan and find an amicable settlement to Article 78, such that we can move on to rebuild confidence in our government and village.
Scarsdale Library Receives Significant State Grant for Temporary Facility at Supply Field
- Category: Village Voices
- Published on 31 January 2017
- Written by Joanne Wallenstein
The Scarsdale Public Library took a significant step toward the updating and expansion of its building with a grant from New York State that defrays the bulk of the cost to renovate a temporary facility.
With the advocacy of Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, the Village of Scarsdale has received approval for a $500,000 reimbursement grant from the state Dormitory Authority to refurbish the village-owned building at Supply Field on Heathcote Road for use as a temporary facility when the current building is closed. The project is estimated to cost $700,000 with the village benefitting from the upgraded building for future use.
This latest development gives additional momentum to a project that incubated about six years ago when the Library Board of Trustees developed a strategic plan after receiving considerable input from residents.
"Having a temporary facility so we could continue to provide library services for residents of Scarsdale while work is done on the library was an important component in planning for the renovation," said Elizabeth Bermel, Library Director. "Through the tireless efforts of Assemblywoman Paulin, the village has obtained a major share of the funds needed to convert the building at Supply Field into a temporary library. When the library renovation is completed the village will have a modernized building for its use."
"I'm thrilled to be able to be part of the Scarsdale community's efforts to renovate its public library," Paulin said. "A larger more modern facility will help the library's talented staff provide more programs and service for all Scarsdale residents, making it a true community center as well as a source of information, entertainment and connectivity. I look forward to attending many events in the renovated library!"
Petitioners File Lawsuit to Void the 2016 Revaluation
- Category: Village Voices
- Published on 19 January 2017
- Written by Joanne Wallenstein
A group of 151 property owners from the Village of Scarsdale, called the Scarsdale Committee for Fair Assessment, has filed an Article 78 proceeding and a civil action on behalf of themself and the other Scarsdale taxpayers in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of Westchester. The suit was filed on January 13, 2017 to comply with a deadline to file not more than three months after the official 2016 assessment roll for the Village of Scarsdale was filed.
The property owners, representing about 2.6% of the total property owners in the Village of Scarsdale, are represented by Attorney Robert Bernstein, an Edgemont resident who has been a champion of the incorporation of Edgemont for many years. The petition was verified by Mayra Kirkendall-Rodriguez of the Village of Scarsdale. The suit names Village Assessor Nanette Albanese, the Village of Scarsdale and the Mayor and the Board of Trustees of Scarsdale.
The petition asks the court to annul, void and rescind the 2016 assessment roll of the Town/Village of Scarsdale and permanently enjoin the Village from levying taxes on the 2016 roll while rolling back assessments to the prior tax roll which should be "adjusted by the results of any and all grievance proceedings, tax certiorari proceedings and any additions or subtractions to the assessment roll by the assessor in the ordinary course due to new construction and improvements."
If the Village does not rollback assessments to the prior year the petition asks for refunds for the petitioners who "paid more than their fair share ... as determined by what they would have had to pay had there been a rollback of the assessment roll."
The 81-page lawsuit details the history of both the 2014 and 2016 the revaluations, questions the validity of the direct market model used in the 2016 revaluation and contends that owners of Scarsdale's smaller homes now bear more than their fair share of the local property burden.
The filing contains many exhibits, presumably gathered from FOIL requests for emails to and from the Village Assessor's office, Village Manager's office, John Ryan, Al Gatta, John Wolham and others.
It documents errors in the data collection process. In a May 31, 2016 email from Albanese to Ryan she writes, "Gerd marked parcels with plus location adjustments for reasons that are not readily obvious, understandable or explained. In a similar fashion , he also marked other parcels with location and/or size adjustments for reasons I can't figure out either. We'll need good explanations for these types of adjustments and will need them ASAP ... the phone will start ringing off the hook real soon ... Yikes!"
It also claims that prominent elected officials were given favorable tax treatment and presents emails to backup this assertion. In a May 10, 2016 email from from Albanese to Ryan concerning a house at 42 Olmsted Road, Albanese says, "FYI ... this sold for a very high price 2 years ago, or so ago and was subsequently completely gutted (see photos in PAS.) Geothermal heating system, new high-end finishes etc. She's the president of the Scarsdale Board of Education and could be ... Well, you know. Will keep trying .... Thanks." There is no evidence that any Village official requested special treatment.
The filing includes emails documenting many errors in data collection and valuations. A June 10, 2016 email from Patrick McEvily in the assessor's office to Ryan says, "Mrs. Kadison does not have a pool on her property. I removed the pool from the inventory but there is no change in the value. If we make changes in inventory and they impact value, shouldn't the new assessment reflect this change or do I make the change by hand?"
In one lengthy note, Albanese offers an explanation of how circumstances caused the perfect storm to undermine the second revaluation. She cites the following:
Staffing: The assessor's office was short staffed and under stress to handle 756 small claim filings from the 2014 revaluation to prepare and file the 2015 tentative assessment roll.
Complaints: "A never-ending bombardment of nasty complaints from residents, brokers and potential buys about the 2014 reval, including continued pressure and demand for responses to certain issues, documentation and questions about the 2014 reval, long after the May 27, 2014 presentation by Tyler Technologies."
Software: Inadequate assessment software system that is "not written in modern computer language, lacks valuation capabilities applicable to revaluation and the corresponding revaluation components." The department then opted to use NYS RPS software but struggled to bridge it back to the Village SCA software system.
John Ryan: "He became increasingly more difficult to work with and to pin down a timeline for delivery of final values and sometimes refused to do things that I asked of him by responding to my emails. He compounded our computer system problems by not staying on top of our vendor and did not see that it was his responsibility to our taxpayers to shoulder the burden."
The list of the 151 petitioners includes some who often spoke out at Village meetings including Mayra and Brice Kirkendall Rodriguez, Phil Maresco, Norton Rosenzweig and Gregory Soldatenko, but does not include others who also fiercely criticized the Trustees, the Assessor and the 2016 Revaluation including Robert Berg, Robert Harrison, Steve Rakoff and Ron Parlato. We asked Berg why he did not add his name to the list and he explained that since his assessment went down between 2014 and 2016 he had nothing to gain from the action. This may also be the case with Rakoff and Parlato.
One petitioner who was not over assessed joined the suit anyway. He explained, "I joined the Article 78 even though I wasn't over-assessed after grieving my initial valuation. The issues here go beyond economic harm. Taxation lies at the very heart of municipal government. If taxes cannot be assessed in the most competent and open way possible, it creates a fault line at the heart of the entire system. I do believe that the Trustees who voted for this latest assessment were misled and that the Village attorney has acted in good faith in laying out the Village's options or lack thereof. The blame seems to lie with the person who carried out the assessment, John Ryan, who misled, coerced and ultimately showed his incompetence. That being said, I view this Article 78 action as a way for residents to act on the Village's behalf. The Village cannot nullify its published tax roll, but residents acting on its behalf can do so. I do hope the Village sees the Article 78 proceeding as a lifeline that extricates it from a rotten situation and given that, chooses not to fight it."
We asked the Mayor and Village Attorney Wayne Esannason for a comment on the suit. Esannason declined to answer questions about who would defend the Village and what the potential cost might be to taxpayers. He said that the Article 78 had been received, but that the Village had not yet been served and he could not comment on active litigation.
In the past, Mayor Jon Mark repeatedly owned up to flaws in the 2016 revaluation, but said that the grievance process was the way for residents to address inequities. At the October 16, 2016 meeting of the Village Board, Mark quoted legal precedent which says, "The town board, therefore, has no authority to substitute its judgment for that of the assessor and the exclusive remedy available to a property owner, who considers himself aggrieved by reason of any assessment made by the assessor, is that which is provided by Article 5 and Article 7 of the Real Property Tax Law."
He also reviewed the possibility of asking the NYS Legislature to void the revaluation, offering the following; "The threshold question before us is not whether we can make such a request, but rather if we did and even if it were granted would that be the best result for the Village as a whole. It is on this threshold question that I have a different view from those residents who have urged us to make such a request. I believe that even if the final 2015 assessment roll could be reinstated, that would not be the best result, have stated so previously and will repeat some of what I have said before on this subject."
He explained, "As a practical matter, if authorizing legislation was passed, implementation would likely not be feasible until deep into 2017 either concurrent with the time for issuance of initial tax bills – or even after initial tax bills went out based on the 2016 valuations still in place. This would create a chaotic scenario in the administration of taxes on the County and local level increasing the possibility of incorrect billings, the need to issue refunds and additional tax bills. Such a scenario would be another source of distress for residents that cannot be dismissed."
Robert Berg, who headed The Assessment Revaluation Committee who recommended the first revaluation, said that he repeatedly raised red flags about the 2016 revaluation before June 1, 2016, calling it a train wreck waiting to happen.
Berg said, "The Village has already acknowledged that Ryan screwed up. The New York State Office of Real Property Assessment found that the Ryan reval undervalued Scarsdale real estate by $1 billion and assigned an equalization rate to bring Scarsdale up to fair market value."
Berg predicted that "It was going to be tough for the Village to defend this revaluation," and suggested that it might be less expensive for the Village to settle the case, give refunds for overpayment to the 151 petitioners and rollback assessments to the adjusted 2014 tax roll than to litigate and perhaps lose in court.
About the Mayor's claim that the Village had no recourse once the flawed tax roll was filed, Berg said, "The Village had a basis to challenge this and should have pursued it." Berg concluded, "The Village is in a real pickle here and it could have been avoided had they waited another year or two to do this next revaluation."
Another resident took the long view. "It is their right to sue, and I am not suggesting that the reval situation was/is a good one, but legal merits aside, it will cost the taxpayers more money, so it seems a counter-productive action to me. The Village will now have to hire counsel and pay for the defense of the suit, using already stretched time and money resources ... and these very people will have to pay for that, too. It's illogical to me! Can't help but wonder if they will be the first to complain that they are not getting the treatment they feel they deserve on the ordinary business of the community? As for the merits, the legitimate concerns about the practices and oversight of the Ryan Reval are unquestioned by most, including the Trustees, so accusations of corruption on the part of our volunteer Board of Trustees? Really? That is way WAY too far! I am further confused by the energy spent to return to the last reval... didn't it also have over 1000 grievances? Didn't a whole bunch of folks hate that outcome too? Isn't that why the Village pursued a reval adjustment in the first place? Seems like we should remember the big picture -- the real issue is that 40+ years went by without a reassessment, leaving a great deal of unfair tax burdens around. And now, its painful getting that fixed. Its not going to be easy, and there needs a good deal of work done on this, and probably quickly. Ryan was a step backward, but let's move forward... and spend our resources productively."
Care to comment? Please include your first and last name.