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Village Considers Hiring Consultants to Conduct an Organizational Evaluation of the Assessor's Office

management-consultingIn an effort to restore public trust in the Scarsdale Village Assessor's Office after the controversial 2016 revaluation, Village Managers are proposing to retain a professional consulting company to do an organization assessment of the office. The consultants would study the current workings of the office, analyze processes, research best practices in other municipalities and make recommendations to improve their effectiveness and efficiency.

Looking toward the next revaluation the consultants would investigate technologies and methodologies to give the Village a roadmap toward selecting a vendor to conduct future revaluations. Village Manager Steve Pappalardo maintained that bringing in an outside firm to conduct the evaluation would help build community confidence in the results.

Pappalardo said that the Village had contacted four potential firms, met with three and received proposals from two. After evaluating both proposals Pappalardo recommended that the Village retain Management Partners from Cincinnati, Ohio at a cost of $34,990 for 179 hours of work. Management Partners also brought in a subcontractor, John Burin, who has expertise in assessments to assist with the job.

On Tuesday night 2-28 the Trustees invited Kevin Knutson from Management Partners and John Burin to make a presentation and answer questions. Knutson said he was a former Village Manager of Coral Gables Florida who now works at Management Partners, an 80-person firm with over 700 clients in 41 states.

He introduced John Burin who is a former city manager in Elmira, an assessor and the former owner of an appraisal company. He said his role would be to "eliminate the controversy over the revaluation," and to "Come up with recommendations on how we can do things more efficiently and transparently." The consultants would interview communities that have been successful with keeping assessments up to date and determine what software and methodologies they use to maintain valuations at market rate.

Both the Trustees and residents in attendance questioned the consultants intensively. Trustee Marc Samwick wanted to know if the outcome of the project would be specific recommendations on whether the Village should conduct another revaluation or set up a continuous process to update valuations. Deb Pekarek wanted to know if the consultants would investigate potential revaluation vendors and provide costs. Matt Callaghan asked if the consultants would provide a timeline of deliverables.

Burin came under particular scrutiny because some said that Elmira real estate was in no way similar to that of Scarsdale. He said, "We didn't have the values you have in Scarsdale in Elmira, but we did have big shifts in commercial vs. residential values. It was very controversial. Assessment offices in New York are all governed by the New York State Office of Real Property and everyone is dealing with the same thing."

Audience members questioned Burin about his experience and found that he conducted revaluations in the 1990's and was not familiar with the software that is now used but Burin said that Management Partners would provide technological expertise.

Others asked if the consultants would meet with the public to get their views on the issues.

Though the consultant's task was to analyze the organization and the processes, Robert Berg questioned the assignment saying, "We all know what the problems are." Trustee Bill Stern responded and said, "I take exception to Bob's statement that everyone knows what the problem is – everyone does not agree – there are issues that need to be dissected. Anyone who comes in with bias is not doing a service."

Berg asked, "How can we be confident if you're not familiar with the models?"

Michael Levine said, "You both mentioned efficiency. It's not an issue of efficiency and not an issue of building permits or exemptions. If you think those are the issues you're not up to speed. The issues are supervision. Problems in the department were not elevated to the Village Managers and the Board. There are issues with public trust and acceptance. How did we get to this credibility issue? That's why I think you are here."

Steve Pappalardo assured Levine that "The firm is fully aware of what happened. They are going to do an overall management study of that office. They are not going to come out with a recommendation on building the proper model. But we are going to come out with a plan to hire a new firm to do a revaluation."

The Trustees said they would mull over the meeting and come up with a recommendation after subsequent discussion.

Village Seeks Dismissal of Article 78 Lawsuit

gavelAttorneys representing the Village of Scarsdale, Terry Rice and Dan Vinclette filed a motion to dismiss the Article 78 brought by the Scarsdale Committee for Fair Assessments on January 13, 2017. Drafted by Scarsdale Attorney Robert Bernstein and verified by Mayra Kirkendall-Rodriguez for 151 petitioners, the Article 78 asked the court to annul, void and rescind the 2016 tax assessment roll for Scarsdale and roll back valuations to 2015 assessments. If the Village failed to roll back the assessments, they asked that the petitioners who would pay more taxes on the 2016 roll than the 2015 roll be refunded the difference.

The Village of Scarsdale countered by asking for the dismissal of the Article 78 based on a number of procedural issues and the petitioners' failure to "allege any cognizable cause of action."

In an affirmation of support of the memorandum to dismiss the case, the attorneys write, "The petition consists of nothing more than a host of unsubstantiated allegations that are designed to disparage the name and reputation of the public officials involved in the 2016 revaluation.... Moreover, Petitioner ignores the fact that property valuations made by tax assessors are presumptively valid and that the presumption can only be rebutted with substantial evidence of overvaluation through proof based upon both sound proof and objective data. Here, Petitioner failed to present any evidence to rebut this presumption."

Recounting the history of the revaluation, the affirmation of support explains the role of Scarsdale resident Mayra Kirkendall Rodriguez who has been a vocal opponent of the Village Board and organized the petitioners to file the Article 78. The affirmation says that after the Village filed the 2016 roll, "Mayra Kirkendall Rodriguez became an immediate critic of the results and the valuation process. Despite having been told repeatedly that the Assessor is independent and that elected officials did not have the authority to supersede the Assessor's determination to file the final 2016 assessment roll, Mayra Kirkendall Rodriguez continued to insist that the Town/Village Board engage in such unlawful conduct.... When she realized that the Board would not supersede the independent determination of the Assessor, she then insisted that the Board seek special legislation from the State Legislature and Governor to invalidate the revaluation. When the Board declined to pursue that political remedy she threatened the Board with litigation and subsequently facilitated the commencement of this action. It should be noted that Mayra Kirkendall Rodriguez exercised her rights under Article 5 of the Real Property Tax Law and received a reduction in her 2016 assessment, almost to the level of her 2015 assessment."

The Village also explains why a roll back to a prior tax roll would not be legal or feasible for the Village as it would "deprive certain property owners of their right to grieve their 2015 assessment because certain statutory deadlines have passed."

In a 44-page memorandum filed on February 15 they argue for dismissal because:

1) The suit failed to name of the County of Westchester and the Scarsdale School District who they call "indispensable parties" who receive taxes based on the assessment roll. Since they would be required to pay refunds and could be "adversely affected" the lawyers argue that the suit can't proceed in their absence.

2) The suit fails to provide a factual basis for "outlandish claims" related to the revaluation and did not provide "substantial evidence of overvaluation based on sound theory and objective data."

3) The Committee for Fair Assessments lacks standing to assert a claim as it is an unincorporated association who does not own property or pay taxes in the Village. The memorandum says that the claim does not demonstrate injury to any "members" of the committee and failed to establish that it is advocating a position fairly representative of the community of interests which it seeks to protect. It doesn't provide the specifics of how individual members were affected and does not establish whether or not the organization was open to all individuals who were affected.

4) The claim does not provide facts to support that the 2016 revaluation "constituted a waste of or injury to public funds" or that it was illegal, imperiled the public interest or "calculated to work public injury.

The Village contends that the claim that the group was denied equal protection is baseless for several reasons ... one because the petition fails to show how the petitioners were treated differently than "similar persons or entities." The motion says, since the group was an ad hoc organization it would be difficult to comprehend how any equal comparator could exist. It says, "The petition challenges broad methodologies of assessment but fails to provide a single instance of purportedly similarly situated person or property that was treated differently."

The memorandum cites extensive case law to show that rescinding a municipality's tax roll has not previously been supported in a court of law. In Hellerstein vs. Assessor of Town of Islip in 1975, the court said, "if we invalidate the assessment roll this could bring fiscal chaos to the Town of Islip. ... and cause disorder and confusion in public affairs." Mayor Jon Mark cited this same case repeatedly over the last year and a half when residents pleaded with the Village Board to throw out the 2016 assessment roll.

Under General Municipal Law 51 the plaintiff was required to furnish a bond to the defendant therein, to be approved by a justice of the Supreme Court. The memorandum notes that the petitioners failed to post a bond.

Several people who signed the Article 78 and paid $500 each to fund the action are now running for Scarsdale Village Trustee. Brice Kirkendall-Rodriguez, husband of Mayra Kirkendall Rodriguez, who led the challenge to the Village, signed the petition. Candidate for Trustee Robert Selvaggio is a petitioner and Robert Berg, candidate for Village Mayor supported the suit saying he would have signed it except for the fact that his assessment was reduced between 2014 and 2016 and he therefore had nothing to gain. In recent weeks these candidates from the newly formed Scarsdale Voters' Choice Party who supported the suit then asked the Village to settle it rather than spend taxpayer funds to fight it. They said, "We will, with the Court's assistance, fashion a fair resolution of the lawsuit."

However, the Village launched a defense against the Article 78 which, if settled, would cost taxpayers considerable funds and might lead to further lawsuits. The outcome of the case may impact the results of the upcoming Village election on March 21.

About the Village's motion to dismiss, Robert Berg, who is currently running on the slate of the Scarsdale Voter's Choice Party for Mayor in opposition to the Scarsdale Citizens Party, said, "It reminds me of the alternative facts from Donald Trump. It sounds like the Ryan reval was fine and these people just disagree with the results. It ignores the entire history of what happened here. Mayor Mark admitted it was a mistake, no one on the Village Board was happy with it and the Village is withholding money from Ryan. These are all legal technicalities. If you read the substance of the brief, there's nothing there. The bottom line is that the reval is arbitrary and capricious and they should settle it. They are fighting this ... but to what end?"

The case has been assigned to Judge Scheinkman and it is not known when a decision will be announced.

Voters Choice Party Challenges Non-Partisan Party Slate for Scarsdale Mayor and Trustees

Berg(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.

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Three Suspects Arrested for Burglary on Drake Road

suspectsOn 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.

Arrested were:
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.

Scarsdale Library Receives Significant State Grant for Temporary Facility at Supply Field

librarydeckThe 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!"