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Reassess This

Some Troy property owners think 34 years is long enough to go without a city-wide tax tally


‘In Albany, you can grieve your taxes,” said Warren Abele. “In Troy, you need a lawyer just to get through the paperwork.”

Abele, along with his wife, Pamela, has joined more than a dozen other homeowners in Troy’s Washington Park neighborhood in bringing a lawsuit against the city of Troy to grieve the individual assessments on their properties and to compel the assessor’s office to enact a citywide revaluation.

Abele owns four properties, three of which are rentals, along 2nd Street in the Washington Park neighborhood. He lives in the building at 189 2nd St., which he bought for $430,000 in 2001. When he bought the building, the former home of Rensselaer County Center for the Arts, Abele’s combined school and property taxes for the building were $8,500. Three years later, he remodeled the second floor of the carriage house behind the building and that, he said, triggered a reassessment. His tax burden increased by more than 50 percent, to more than $14,000.

For 2007, he said, his combined taxes are more than $16,000.

“How am I going to stay in this house?” Abele wondered aloud. “Next year, I am turning 65. I will be living off Social Security. I could raise the rent for my apartments. I could raise the rents a little in the carriage house. I could turn the extra bedrooms into a bed and breakfast,” he gestured to the rooms off his second-floor kitchen. He then added, “They would probably just raise my assessment again.”

Republican at-large Councilwoman Marjorie DerGurahian said she doesn’t know enough about the Abele lawsuit to comment specifically, but she definitely hears complaints from her constituents about assessments.

“It is a problem that needs to be addressed and hasn’t been,” she said. “It is a shame that when somebody renovates or makes their property look nicer they get penalized with a higher tax assessment. That seems like the wrong way, and there could be other ways to do it.”

Perhaps, she suggested, assessments could be based on land value.

The lawsuit, on which Abele is the lead petitioner, argues that there is a disparity in taxation is due, in part, to the fact that Troy hasn’t undergone a citywide revaluation in decades. Troy’s last uniform, comprehensive look at the assessed value of its 14,000 parcels occurred in 1973.

“The City of Troy has assessment rolls across many years,” the suit reads, “produced with and by unknown, undefined, non-uniform assessment actions and do not have consistency and uniformity.”

As an example of this lack of consistency, the petition points to the tax roll from 2006. Seven buildings sold for $100,000. One of those buildings, located at 447 3rd St., was assessed at $5,560; another, located at 2228 15th St., was assessed at $18,310; and yet another, located at 358-360 5th Ave., was assessed at $84,740.

“Does that say something about the competence of the assessor’s office?” Abele asked.

Geoff Gloak, a spokesman with the New York State Office of Real Property Services, wasn’t surprised to hear about the apparent disparities cited in the petition. “If it’s been 34 years since Troy has reassessed . . . it is pretty likely that there are a lot of inequities in the assessment rolls.”

That is why, he said, the ORPS recommends a municipality complete a citywide revaluation every six years.

“The municipality is going to collect the same amount of taxes whether a reassessment is done or not,” Gloak said. “So . . . doing the reassessment is just the way to make sure everyone, that each taxpayer pays their fair share of the total tax bill. It’s like cutting up a pie. And sometimes, before a reassessment, the pie isn’t cut up fairly.”

Fair or not, DerGurahian pointed out that a comprehensive revaluation isn’t a popular idea.

“I think that probably local leaders are hesitant to support [a citywide revaluation] because politically that is a scary thing to say.” Plus, it would be expensive. The last price she heard quoted was $800,000.

This cost could be offset somewhat, Gloak said, by the state, which offers any municipality a reimbursement of $5 per parcel reassessed.

“In a city like Troy, that would be $70,000,” he figured. “No small chunk of change.”

Of course, there are some people who have trouble mustering up sympathy for a man who lives in a half-million-dollar house and owns three other buildings in the Washington Park neighborhood when he complains about his taxes.

“People say that he can sell his house for a half-million dollars,” DerGurahian said. “Well, I don’t want them to sell their house and move out of Troy. We have good people here. I think that is missing the point. I am hearing that Warren’s taxes are $16,000 total. That’s atrocious. I don’t care how much money you have or what kind of house you have. In the city of Troy, somebody’s taxes shouldn’t be $16,000.”

“I intend to run this action to the very end,” Abele said, adding that he feels he has been left with no other choice. “I intend to pay these lawyers whatever it takes to get a favorable outcome.”

Representatives of the Beebe Law Firm, which is representing Abele, as well as the Troy assessor, Tina Dimitradis, refused to comment for this article.

—Chet Hardin

What a Week

Desperately Seeking “Susan”

One month after announcing his intention to seek a sex-change operation, the city manager of Largo, Fla., has found himself out of a job. An emotional Steve Stanton and his supporters pleaded to city officials to no avail last week, arguing that becoming “Susan” will not affect his job performance. The city maintains that its firing of Stanton is due to a loss of confidence in him and not due to his expressed wish to become a woman. Stanton has not decided whether he will file a lawsuit.

Let Our Seamen Go

Britain is pushing Iran to release 15 English seamen captured last week in the Persian Gulf. Iran insists the men were in Iranian territorial waters, while Britain and Iraq maintain that the ship was patrolling 1.7 miles inside Iraqi waters (the ownership of this portion of the Persian Gulf has been much disputed between Iran and Iraq over the years). This is not the first incident in which Iran has seized British seamen—in 2004, 14 men were seized and shown blindfolded on Iranian state-run television prior to being released.

OK, I’m Guilty! Now Please Stop Hitting Me!

Australian David Hicks pleaded guilty last week to providing material support for terrorism after being held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for five years. He is the first person to be tried and convicted under the controversial Military Commissions Act of 2006. According to Democracy Now!, Hicks, who was accused of conspiracy to commit murder as well as supporting terrorism, claims to have been beaten, sodomized and forcibly drugged while under U.S. custody. These accusations were denied by representatives of the U.S. government.

BYOB: Bring Your Own Bag

City leaders in San Francisco voted Tuesday to ban large supermarkets and drug stores from using plastic grocery bags. It’s a move that may eliminate the “Would you like paper or plastic?” question from at least 50 grocery stores. Instead, these retailers will be required to offer bags made of recyclable material, such as paper, or reusable cloth. Supporters of the measure claimed that plastic bags lead to litter that can choke marine life and are overall not environmentally friendly.

What’s the 211?

United Way hopes to make information on local health and human services just a phone call away

In the Capital Region, there is no community-wide information and referral service for citizens wishing to find various human services, including everything from suicide prevention to child care, said Katherine Pelham, president of United Way of Northeastern New York.

But United Way is trying to change that.

In other areas of the state and the country, such existing databases have been converted into a 211 phone service. Staff at 211 call centers—always a live person, Pelham noted—are trained to assess each caller’s individual situation and direct the caller to government agencies or nonprofit groups that can assist them.

Pelham said that without a database locally, 211 is more difficult to build but even more necessary. “It’s a little circular,” she said. “We’re building it.”

211 New York, a coalition of New York State Alliance of Information and Referral Systems and the United Way, is requesting that $10.66 million be allotted to fund the 211 system for the 2007-2008 budget year, an increase of $4.7 million from last year. If the full amount is allotted, about $1.3 million is slated to go toward establishing the service in the Capital Region. 211 already exists in both the Hudson Valley and the Finger Lakes.

“It takes huge resources,” Pelham said. “There’s no getting around that.”

“These systems are technologically driven, and they are complex,” she continued. The services must be able to roll into each other, “so if Westchester has a problem, their system would roll to ours or Buffalo,” and vice versa.

Susan Hager, president of United Way of New York State, said that United Way alone could not maintain the program locally. “The state coming in as a partner is extremely important to the final launch in the Capital Region,” she said. In addition to state money, the service would be funded by the United Way and citizen donations.

United Way is working to get the word out to the public about the service, but with a bit of reserve. “We need the community’s support and understanding,” Pelham said. “We want people to know it’s in development, but we don’t want to set an expectation that today you can pick up the phone and call 211.” In other places you can, she said, “but not here, not yet.”

The current plan is to have some sort of working database in place in the Capital Region by December of this year.

Begun in Atlanta in 1997, 211 now reaches more than 65 percent of the U.S. population—about 193 million Americans. Hager noted that the service often starts in areas that have recently seen a weather emergency. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, she said, 911 lines went down but 211 stayed strong, and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco urged citizens in need to call 211. “Those lines were pretty flooded with phone calls,” Hager said. “It provided incredible support in Texas and Louisiana,” although Mississippi did not have the service.

Hager said that, in addition to helping citizens, the service makes the crucial job of emergency operators easier. “The wonderful people that staff 911 will not be getting calls that are not life-threatening,” she said. “They have a place to send those people to that they didn’t have before. And that’s very important.”

—David Canfield

You Raise, I’ll Petition

Schenectady residents cry foul amid confusion that surrounds vote on large pay increases for city officials

Conflicting and ambiguous laws added confusion to what was already a contentious debate during recent weeks about whether the position of Schenectady mayor should see a $36,000 pay raise and City Council members should get an increase of $4,000. Although the council approved increases for both positions Monday night (March 26), the decisions came only after both pieces of legislation were amended on the floor.

While Democratic at-large Councilman Frank Maurizio said that the changes were a response to public outcry because “the council listened to the people,” some citizens said the eleventh-hour modifications were made for one reason and one reason only—to kibosh their plan to petition for a referendum that could have put the pay-raise issue up for a public vote.

“I think [the council] did that to discourage the people,” said Pat Zollinger, who began planning a petition drive days before the vote in case the legislation was passed without amendments. The problem with the initial legislation’s intention was that it would have given three council members a midterm pay raise, she said, an action that is legally subject to a public vote if residents successfully petition.

“I’m just not willing to give it up,” Zollinger added. She already is thinking about a new plan to undo what was decided Monday night. Her new idea is based on a state law that she said allows residents to pass their own local laws if they can gather enough petition signatures to put the citizen-proposed measure on the ballot. She explained that this option would allow residents to propose two new local laws, one that would rescind the mayoral position’s pay raise and another that would rescind the increase for City Council members.

“I honestly believe it’s doable,” Zollinger said. “I don’t think that we should just throw our hands up in the air and say, ‘Oh, forget it. We’re at the mercy of these politicians.’ ”

Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton currently receives $60,500 a year, but under the new local law, whoever is elected to the position this fall will receive $96,706 beginning Jan. 1, 2008.

City Council members currently are paid $9,800 for their services. The new law increases that position’s salary to $14,093.

Zollinger said she doesn’t oppose pay increases; she simply thinks the new figures are too high. It’s an opinion that puts her in the majority among those who spoke during a public-comment period before the council vote. Many of the speakers called the increases, particularly the one for the mayor’s position, “excessive” and “obscene.”

Such comments were nothing new to the ears of Schenectady politicians, who heard similar input during a public hearing about the two proposed pay-increase laws March 12. At the same meeting, residents complained about the original legislations’ inclusion of automatic pay-increase provisions.

Even though the language about automatic pay increases was removed from both pieces of legislation when the laws were amended prior to the final vote, the mayor may still be able to receive automatic pay increases, said John Van Norden, corporation counsel for the city. That’s because of an ambiguous law passed in 1979 that may allow the mayoral position to take an increase whenever nonunionized city managers receive a raise. Nonunion city managers usually receive a pay increase whenever city employees who belong to the Civil Service Employees Union receive a raise.

Van Norden said the revised automatic pay-increase language that was included in the original pay-increase proposals but never made it to law was designed to clarify this confusion.

In addition to the legal questions surrounding the automatic pay increase, Van Norden also was called upon to respond to confusion about when the council members’ proposed pay increases would be applied to each seat—since council members are currently elected on staggered cycles, a uniform application of the pay increase would result in a few members receiving a midterm raise.

Van Norden explained that there are legal tensions between laws at several levels that create contradictions when it comes time to discuss when to apply pay increases to council seats. While the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution requires equal treatment for people in equal positions, local laws restrict the council’s power to pass midterm pay increases without a public referendum.

During a committee meeting on March 19, Van Norden and council members indicated that the raise would apply to all seats beginning Jan. 1, 2008, even though only four of the seven council seats will have gone through an election cycle by that date. By Monday’s vote, however, they had changed their minds, and Maurizio clarified that the four seats that are up for election this fall will receive the increase Jan. 1, 2008, while the remaining three seats would receive the raise in 2010 after the 2009 election cycle.

Five days before the final vote, Democratic at-large Councilman Gary McCarthy echoed the confusion of many residents, saying that he didn’t even know what version would show up when it came time to vote. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

—Nicole Klaas

Taking care of agribusiness: Kirsten Gillibrand is looking to help dairy farmers.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

The Price of Milk

Kirsten Gillibrand’s first bill would give dairy farmers a helping hand

Columbia County Farm Bureau President Eric Ooms said he realized last year how bad things were across the board for dairy farmers in upstate New York when he spoke to his loan officer. “I had heard no one was able to pay their bills last year. And that’s probably accurate. He said out of the dairy farmers he works with from four or five counties, he knew only one dairy farmer who didn’t borrow to pay operating expenses last year.” Of course, Ooms noted, 2006 was not the worst it has been for dairy farmers, whose survival hinges on the price they are paid for their cows’ milk.

Ask dairy farmers and experts alike, and they will tell you the price farmers are paid for their milk has remained stagnant since the ’70s, while the costs of producing it, such as fuel, feed and animal care, have all steadily increased.

Ooms and members of the Farm Bureau are hopeful that things may soon change for the small dairy farmer, thanks to Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-Greenport) and the first bill she has authored in her short time in Congress.

“I’ve been meeting with farmers for the past two years,” said Gillibrand. “And I found out it’s costing most of the farmers between $16 and $17 to produce a hundredweight of milk, and they are getting reimbursed about $13. That might even be a little high.”

The goal of Gillibrand’s bill is to increase the amount paid to dairy farmers to ensure their farms are sustainable, and to make sure more dairy farmers are covered under current subsidy programs. But, as Ooms tells it, milk pricing is more complicated than you might think.

Ooms explained that the bill attempts a number of things, “all of varying degrees of difficulty when it comes to getting them passed.” The first part, Ooms explained, has to do with doubling the coverage of the Milk Income Loss Contract Program, which reimburses farmers when the price of milk drops below a certain amount. The bill would double the amount of milk covered for each farmer from 2,400,000 pounds to 4,800,000.

Ooms explained that in an effort to cut costs, he combined his milking operation with that of his father and two brothers. “We do that because we try to get a little bit of scale. Although we can’t really compete necessarily with New Mexico, whose farms average 1,400 cows, we decided to work together instead of having four 90-cow farms.” As a result of being a larger farm, the Ooms family misses out on some of the subsidies they would be getting if they were working four smaller farms.

The second component of the bill would set the minimum price under Federal Milk Marketing Orders for one hundredweight of drinking milk at $15.58. The price would then be adjusted yearly for inflation. While farmers are currently enjoying a strong price, at times last year the price was in the low teens.

While Ooms is not so sure how easy it will be to get these changes through, possibly because of resistance from states that do not produce as much drinking milk, he says he is grateful that upstate New York has a representative on the House Agricultural Committee. “It is such a big deal for Kirsten to get on the Ag Committee. I look back three years ago and there was only one person from the Northeast on the Ag Committee. Two years ago, Randy Kuhl (R-Hammondsport) got on. Now we have three of 50. That’s not good, but at least now we have both sides of the aisle and people on various subcommittees. At least we have a voice. No one was even there, so forget about the votes. Now we got to think about getting the votes.”

“This is a food-security issue!” Gillibrand said. “Food production could be disrupted by disaster or a terrorist attack, so we need a safe food supply in other parts of the country. And if these small dairies go out of business, they are not going to come back, so I am going to make the case that this is part of our economic security.”

However, there are simpler reasons why Gillibrand says she feels her legislation is important. She says that she has seen the devastation wrought on dairy farms in upstate New York. She has seen counties once ripe with more than 200 dairy farms reduced to only 20.

“The bottom line is the dairy farms are going out of business,” she said, “and we like having dairies around. We like the milk that is produced right now, we like the quality of life the farms provide, the nutritional value of having local producers. It’s really important to support our farmers because it adds to our quality of life.”

—David King

Loose Ends

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