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The 2016 Reval: The Problem is not Misdirected Anger

bullhornThis letter to the editor was sent to Scarsdale10583 by Robert Berg:
Joanne, your editorial "We're all in this Together" misses the "Mark" both literally and figuratively. The problem here is not misdirected anger by those who are unhappy with their 2016 assessments. A number of the "leaders" of the movement calling for the nullification of the 2016 revaluation actually saw their assessments go DOWN in the Ryan revaluation. That includes me --our property assessment is $58,000 lower in the 2016 reval. What we and many other property owners beyond the 19% who have actually filed grievances are upset about is the failure of our elected officials to safeguard the interests of all residents, to spend our tax dollars wisely, to accept responsibility for their bad decisions (having been publicly forewarned not to do the second revaluation in the first place and to pull the plug when it was obvious that the Ryan revaluation would be the unmitigated disaster that it is), and to take any sort of remedial action.

We are angry that our fact-specific protestations fall on deaf ears.

Moreover, It is not correct to say that "nothing can be done" at this stage except allow the grievance proceedings to run their course. We have asked the Mayor and Trustees to bring in an independent expert to assess the Ryan reval in light of the major deficiencies we have articulated. They have not done so, in my view, because they are afraid of what the findings of such an investigation will be.

They have not demanded that JF Ryan defend what he has done in a public meeting. (Ryan has "kindly" offered to provide consulting services in responding to criticisms of his reval for $200/hour -- we call that the ultimate in chutzpah). In stark contrast, when Tyler Technologies conducted the 2014 revaluation, I recall several meetings when Tyler brought its staff to public meetings at which residents asked difficult questions for hours and hours and Tyler's staff responded with thoughtful answers. I remember thinking -- wow, Tyler has some impressive staff members who really know their stuff.

Tthe Village could at least sue Ryan for breach of contract and recoup the monies it has paid him for his flawed work product and for damages resulting therefrom. Finally, I see no reason why the Trustees cannot sue to void the 2016 revaluation itself nothwithstanding the filing of the tentative assessment roll on June 1. I am a litigator. I think a federal lawsuit challenging the Ryan reval as violating the Equal Protection Clause would be successful, and other towns in Connecticut and Rhode Island have done so.

In your editorial, you mention that following the 2014 reval, a different group of angry, but more respectful, residents complained to the Board, but thanked members for their service. These "folks," as you say, were persistent, and ultimately the Board voted to go forward with the Ryan reval. Are you suggesting that if we now thank the Board members for their service, they'll authorize a third reval to fix the ungodly Ryan mess? If so, Mayor and Trustees, "thanks so much for your service."

Your assertion that "[s]ometimes there are unanticipated consequences of well-intentioned actions. This seems one of those times," really rankles me. Going forward with the second revaluation was never a well-intentioned action. It was folly from the start. I personally have good street cred to make this statement. I have now studied property tax revaluation in New York State for years, and I was the prime author behind the Scarsdale Forum's report recommending the first revaluation in 45 years. I have served on the Board of Assessment Review for several years now, and I have participated in several thousand grievance decisions. So when I first got wind that the trustees were considering another revaluation immediately after the Tyler revaluation, I publicly, vociferously, and repeatedly opposed going forward both in speeches to the Board of Trustees and in letters to the editor. I was joined by former Village Trustee Bob Harrison and former Scarsdale Forum President Howard Nadel. The trustees and then Mayor rejected our pleas, and caved in to the political pressure from the wealthy developers and estate owners in the Heathcote and Murray Hill areas and hired Ryan to do the second reval in a no-bid contract.

How could it be "well-intentioned" to hire JF Ryan in a no-bid contract? Given his position as the so-called "independent monitor" for the Tyler reval, how could Ryan give that reval a passing grade and then immediately proposition the Village to do a new reval using a completely different methodology while paying him a handsome fee ? That's such an obvious conflict of interest, particularly with a no-bid contract, that no reasonable person could say that the Village Board was "well-intentioned" in approving such a dealt? Bob Harrison made a lot of noise about this at the time, but the Mayor and Trustees ignored him.

What you don't know -- and what we just learned last week in reviewing emails produced by the Village in response to our requests under the Freedom of Information Law, is that when our Assessor advised the New York State Department of Taxation Office of Real Property Tax Services (ORPTS) (John Wolham) in early September 2014 of her and Ryan's plan for an updated 2016 revaluation using Ryan's "market model," Mr. Wolham expressed considerable skepticism. Mr. Wolham then conferred with his colleagues at ORPTS and found that they shared his skepticism. Indeed, no one at ORPTS could recall any revaluation projects in New York State in which Ryan's approach had been used. One colleague did recall:

this approach being discussed in a class taken quite some time ago. The instructors evidently presented this as a possibility, i.e., utilizing only a regression model to value residential properties. It was stressed, however, this would require:

1. LOTS of sales.
2. REALLY GOOD inventory and well-defined, homogeneous neighborhoods.
3. An EXPERT modeler.

Mr. Wolham went on to stress: "The consensus here [in ORPTS] is the conditions for this approach to be successful would be rare. Technically, an independent value from one of the three approaches is required to complete a reappraisal. While this would be a form of market, given the experiences in the initial project, I can't help but think this single approach to value would hamstring you to a degree. Where it works -- in other words, where the model does a good job predicting value for those unsold homes reasonably similar to those that sold -- no problem, but you have sufficient numbers of unique housing stock to make me question for how many homes this will work well. And what alternate will you then use? I can't help but think an additional approach would be helpful, especially a comparable sales estimate and I don't recall from our conversation why the additional use of a comparable sales approach would be problematic."

The Assessor and Ryan then privately deride Mr. Wolham's expert advice, especially Mr. Wolham's suggestion that an additional approach -- a comparable sales estimate -- would be helpful. Ryan writes to Ms. Albanese, the Scarsdale Assesssor: "You very effectively exposed the idiocy of this statement by describing succinctly that comp sales in fact caused most of your problems." Ryan continues: "As you can surmise from the tone of my remarks, it annoys the h... out of me that the State has the nerve to pass judgment on your professional opinion as to how to best proceed going forward..." Ms. Albanese responds: "[N]ow they want us to do it the same old, same old way and expect it to somehow turn out better. If it was the best approach to begin with, how and why did it turn out to be such a disaster. I actually wrote it originally with the word "disaster," but decided I shouldn't put that in writing ... just in case. Funny you chose the same word."

Fascinatingly, Ms. Albanese further notes to Ryan: "It will be interesting to hear Al's [former Village Manager Al Gatta's] take on all this.... My sense is that if Wolham is skeptical, Al won't want to push forward with it. We'll have to regroup on this if that's the case....What could a Plan B possibly look like????" Well, what was Mr. Gatta's take on this?

Was the Mayor and the Board privy to Ryan's and Ms. Albanese's rejection of ORPTS' expert advice against proceeding with Ryan's market model when they decided to sign onto the second reval? If not, why not? If Ryan agreed with Ms. Albanese that the Tyler reval was a "disaster," how in the world could he have properly fulfilled his responsibilities as the independent monitor if he gave his seal of approval to a "disaster" in exchange for his $110,000 fee?

How could the Board have been "well-intentioned" this Spring -- while there was still time to pull the plug-- when they discounted my and Bob Harrison's pleas that the Ryan revaluation was a "train wreck waiting to happen?" The Ryan reval mess is just not "unanticipated consequences of well-intentioned actions." These consequences were forewarned by me and others. We are not Chicken Little, and yes, the sky did fall.

The Ryan reval, as I have stated before, is largely undoing the excellent Village assessment roll that existed on May 31, 2016 which represented the fruits of the Tyler revaluation as adjusted by two full years of property tax grievances. The Ryan reval is hammering many of our seniors with unjustified and dramatic increases in their property valuations and will hit them with large property tax increases that many cannot withstand, while dropping many estate valuations to unjustified pre-Tyler levels. Taxpayers will have spent $1.5 million or more in fees and expenses to Tyler and Ryan to wind up with a seriously distorted assessment roll. They will spend out of pocket hundreds of thousands (or even a few million) dollars paying property tax services and lawyers to grieve their unfair assessments if they don't have the knowledge and courage to grieve themselves.

And you wonder why some residents are not especially polite when they call the trustees and the Mayor out at Village Board meetings? And you suggest that we who have been advocating against this sorry state of affairs become part of the solution -- as if we are part of the problem? Joanne, that's being disrespectful to your fellow neighbors who are spending hundreds of hours trying to right a serious wrong!

I have worked for years "from the inside" on working through the problems this Village and School District have faced. I have been (and am) President of my neighborhood association, an officer and director (and former President) of the Scarsdale Forum, a long-serving member of the Board of Assessment Review, and a member of SNAP. Bob Harrison has served the Village for decades more than me. Howie Nadel has likewise served the community for many years. We "insiders" were not heard by the powers that be at Village Hall, so how can you expect citizens new to the process to have any faith that their concerns will be heard either. Joanne, this simply is not the time to join hands and sing "Kumbaya." Best regards,Bob.

Robert J. Berg, Esq.