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Tax No-Show

Troy’s top legal official appears to owe thousands in back taxes on his so-called residence

Twenty 4th St. in downtown Troy is infamous in some circles. The three-story apartment building was home to Mayor Harry Tutunjian’s campaign headquarters last year, and has been claimed since at least 2007 as the “residence” of Troy’s controversial corporation counsel, David Mitchell. And now, according to documents obtained by Metroland, Mitchell appears to owe thousands of dollars in back taxes on the property, which he recently sold.

The debt stretches back to July 31, 2007, when a property-tax bill for $1,618 came due along with a school-tax bill of $1,736. This year’s Jan. 31 bills also have gone unpaid, according to tax records. The total sum Mitchell appears to owe is $7,928.

The building was sold last month to 20 Fourth Street, LLC.

In his short tenure as the city’s counsel, Mitchell has earned a reputation as a divisively partisan player in the Republican Tutunjian administration. His critics and colleagues from both sides of the aisle refer to him as an unscrupulous legal brawler, who is not one to be trusted, and is always several steps ahead of his opponents.

For years, his actual residency has been a contentious issue. According to the city charter, “All employees of the City of Troy, except those expressly exempt by the Public Officers Law of the State of New York, shall be residents of the City of Troy at the time of their employment. Any employee of the City who does not comply with the mandatory residency requirements of this article shall be subject to immediate termination by the Mayor.”

Last winter, at the final City Council meeting of the year, Mitchell became incensed with then-Councilwoman Marjorie DerGurahian (R-At Large). Mitchell had been asked to approach the council, and DerGurahian took the opportunity to ask Mitchell to state his name and address before speaking, as is customary. Mitchell, outraged, berated DerGurahian, but finally offered the Fourth Street address as his residency.

“I have repeatedly requested Mitchell’s disclosure forms,” said Bill Dunne (D-District 4). All city employees fill out these forms, which must state the residence of the employee, as well as outside dealings and so on, and, according to the City Charter, are supposed to be available to any member of the council. The administration has never honored Dunne’s requests.

“In the very first Law Committee of this year,” Dunne said, “Mitchell brought a disclosure form and said, ‘Is this what you want?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ He said that he wanted to be sure before he made his secretary make the photocopies. But I have never gotten that document. And I shouldn’t have to jump through these hoops.”

Mitchell has contended in the past to Dunne that his residency requirement is satisfied by his ownership of the building.

The problem: Many people, including members of the council, at that time did not believe that he actually lived at that address, but that he owned the building purely to humor the residency requirement he is saddled with as a city employee. The second and third floor of the building hardly look lived in, skeptics said, and at one point, what appeared to be the upper floor’s fire exit in the rear of the building was boarded shut from the outside.

And now, according to a deed processed with Rensselaer County, Mitchell sold the building to a corporation named 20 Fourth Street, LLC, in April, bringing into question again his residency claims. Is he still claiming the address as his residence?

Mitchell could not be reached for comment.

Dunne sees the irony in Mitchell’s apparently delinquent tax bill. Mitchell is, after all, one of the city’s eight political appointees who received a 3.5-percent raise this year after the settling of the lawsuit surrounding the pay raises handed out last December by the Republican- controlled City Council. The raise increased Mitchell’s annual $82,000-a-year salary by 3.5 percent. He is also paid $12,000 a year by the Troy Industrial Development Authority.

“Does David Mitchell want to call this a personal crusade?” said Dunne. Dunne has doggedly pursued Mitchell’s residency claims for years. “It probably is to some extent. But he has been so political in how he has gone after us. He has gone out of his way to create a hostile environment.” For example, Mitchell is responsible for drafting the legislation that goes on the council’s agenda, and since the Democrats took the majority, he has refused to do so.

There are so many unanswered questions, said Dunne: Does Mitchell now reside in Troy? Has he resided in Troy since first being appointed in 2004? Are there appointees of the mayor, other than Mitchell, who are not meeting the residency requirement? If so, what is the mayor doing to bring those employees into compliance? And why has the administration refused to release copies of Mitchell’s disclosure forms?

Jeff Buell, spokesman for the mayor, declined to comment for this article.

—Chet Hardin

chardin@metroland.net


What a Week

Too Little Too Late

Despite Sen. Hillary Clinton’s domination of the West Virginia primary, even many of her loyal supporters are speaking about her candidacy for president in the past tense. “I think it’s likely Obama is the nominee, but not certain,” said James Carville, a Clinton strategist. “I would have preferred another result, but I’m going to be for him. Everybody is going to be with Obama,” he added, referring to other Clinton supporters and campaign staff. “I have an undated check written out for Obama. I’ll send it when this is over.” The day after Clinton’s West Virginia victory, Obama picked up two more superdelegates, solidifying his lead in a category where Clinton held an edge until recently.

Give Us Your Guns

This Monday, Albany County Legislator Chris Higgins (District 6) introduced legislation to create a gun buy-back program in conjunction with the Albany County District Attorney and sheriff. The plan would see $100 gift certificates given to those from Albany County handing in handguns. Participants would receive one-time amnesty while turning the gun in, but if the weapon is connected with a crime, the participant would later be questioned. Albany County Legislator Wanda Willingham (District 3), who lost her son to gun violence, was surprised by the legislation. She said she had been interested in it, but that the idea was “pooh-poohed” by the legislative leadership and counsel. The Legislature approved $10,000 for the purchase of gift certificates.

Awesome-oh!

ASIMO, the robot designed by Honda Motor Co., took on a new hobby this week: conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra during a performance of “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha. “It is absolutely thrilling to perform with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. This is a magnificent concert hall,” ASIMO said. ASIMO was programmed to mimic the actions of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s education director, but cannot actually respond to members of the orchestra. Honda eventually wants to market ASIMO as a companion for the elderly and as a crossing guard for schoolchildren.



Welcome to Our Union

A local college works with the Iraqi Student Project to provide an Iraqi refugee with an expenses-paid education

Thanks to the hard work of a number of Union College Students, their school will be providing an Iraqi refugee a full scholarship and room and board on the campus. Now the students who convinced the administration to commit to providing this Iraqi refugee with an education want the local community to contribute to paying for the things he will need to start his life in America—items such as clothes, airfare, and other essentials.

Darcy Datshkovsky Saenz, an international student and Developmental Studies Major at Union and one of the students who helped spearhead the effort to bring an Iraqi refugee to Union, explained how the effort came together: “A group of students here heard about how refugees had to flee Iraq—some of them talented students just like ourselves—and are now not able to have an education, and we thought it was a good idea bring them to our school.”

The students worked with the Iraqi Student Project, which assists Iraqi student refugees displaced in Syria in finding educational opportunities, and convinced the Union administration to provide a full scholarship and free room and board to one of the displaced Iraqis.

“The administration was very helpful,” said Saenz. “They secured one spot for an Iraqi student to join us during the next school year and to take care of full tuition and room and board, on the condition that we would help try to secure what the student may need, including airfare and money for clothes and things like that.” U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty (D-Green Island) also has been asked to help secure the Iraqi refugee a student visa, and McNulty told Metroland he is happy to do so.

The Iraqi refugee, whose first name is Taif but whom the students don’t want to fully identify yet so that he might have as smooth a transition into college life as possible, already having faced a long hard trip to get to have this chance at education.

According to Saenz, Taif’s father was kidnapped in 2006 and has not been heard from again. He and his mother fled to Damascus, Syria, where Taif eventually met up with representatives from the Iraqi Student Project. Taif is interested in studying biology and received high honors in science studies during his time as a student in Iraq. Saenz said that Taif eventually would like to become a doctor.

To raise funds for Taif, Union students will hold a talk featuring May Saffar, a native of Baghdad who is now a local professor, and who still has family in Baghdad and relatives living as refugees in Syria. The talk will be held on May 20 at 6 PM at the Beuth House on the Union College campus.

Susan Davies, a local activist who has been involved in working to help bring awareness to the refugee crisis in Iraq, said that the problem has not received the attention it deserves from the public or the government.

“People don’t even know about the crisis,” said Davies. “I was shocked the other day. I was at some event about sustainability, and I was speaking to some people who seemed very informed and interested. I said something about Iraqi refugees, and they looked at me blankly. They had no clue that there are over four-and-a-half million Iraqis displaced by the war.”

Davies pointed out that the Bush administration has been unwilling to commit to taking in a proportional amount of refugees, despite having caused the problem, and only provides a fraction of the funding the United Nations actually needs to help the refugees and the countries they take shelter in, like Syria.

Davies said that, locally, people should speak to their members of Congress and ask what they are doing to assist the millions of refugees created by America’s war on Iraq. Furthermore, Davies suggests people donate to help Saffar bring her displaced relatives from Syria to America.

“Iraqi refugees who are resettled here have to pay back the cost of their air ticket to get here,” Davies said. “May’s brother works for the U.S. government and had death threats—people called his cell phone and threatened to kill him. His brother-in-law was kidnapped and killed. They are having a hard time getting over here. But once they get here, him and his wife and two children, he will have to repay all those tickets, and we are trying to raise money to help them.”

Davies asked that interested parties send donations to Women Against War, PO Box 505, Delmar, NY 12054. Davies said that she is heartened by the work of the students at Union to help deal with the refugee crisis.

“Everybody complains about how kids don’t do anything,” said Davies. “But I know they care. There is so little support from the government in this matter, and it might not feel like much to help one person but it is worth it.”

—David King

dking@metroland.net


Bag Happy

Albany County passes legislation that requires big box stores to recycle plastic bags

On Monday, the Albany County Legislature unanimously passed a bill requiring retail stores 10,000 square feet or larger to establish their own plastic-bag recycling programs. Stores such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Price Chopper, and even Macy’s will be required to place collection bins near the entrances of their stores to collect and recycle plastic shopping bags.

“It’s absolutely outrageous that the city of Albany does not accept these bags for recycling,” said Chris Higgins (District 6). “They end up floating around in the air, they clog sewers, float around in streams, and in lakes.”

The bill, which was modeled after similar legislation in Westchester County, will go into affect six months after it is signed into law. Stores that do not comply will face fines up to $1,000.

Besides the local effect on bag recycling, Higgins said, it is time for local governments to take a look at the bigger picture.

“I think the figure was, this year . . . on average, Americans will use over 100 billion bags,” said Higgins. “In order to produce those bags it takes 35 million barrels of oil, and, at this point, oil costs $120 a barrel. It’s a small step, but this bill will help reduce our dependency on foreign oil and make the environment a more sustainable place.”

Higgins said the district he represents [Albany’s Center Square area] is generally progressive and that he and a number of his constituents already bring their own reusable bags to buy groceries. He said if people have the option to do the right thing for the environment, they most likely will. “I truly do believe that if we give people the option of bringing them back, people will do it. I know when I come home from the market, I stuff the bags in a cupboard to keep and I keep smooshing them in there. It takes 1,000 years for plastic bags to decompose, and for me to throw them away when there are major problems with the expansion of Albany’s landfill to begin with, it just makes no sense.”

Higgins said that he might eventually consider imposing a tax on plastic bags as they have done in other localities. After a plastic-bag tax was instituted in Ireland, the country saw a 90-percent decrease in the use of plastic bags.

Higgins said he has more environmental proposals in the works. In fact, Higgins, who is a vocal opponent of the proposed Albany Convention Center, said that if the state decides to go forward with the project, he will present a number of alternative ways to spend the money on local environmental initiatives.

“This law will catch a lot of stores, while exempting mom-and-pop stores,” said Higgins. “I think that’s a good thing, and if Macy’s or Filene’s or Boscov’s are concerned with putting a bin in front of their stores, I quite frankly don’t view them as an environmentally friendly business.”

—David King

dking@metroland.net


Photo: Shannon DeCelle

Steck in the 21st

Four out of the six Democrats on Troy’s City Council have thrown their support behind 21st Congressional District candidate Phil Steck. Steck, a Democrat with three terms in the Albany County Legislature, is seen as an instrumental player in last year’s overthrow of the longtime Republican stronghold in Colonie. Councilmen Ken Zalewski, John Brown, Gary Galuski, and Pete Ryan have joined with Rensselaer Mayor Dan Dwyer in endorsing Steck. Securing the support of these Democrats has been seen as a boon by Steck’s campaign, as Rensselaer County (a portion of which is in the 21st District) is being eyed as a major battlefield in the contest for the 21st, and neither Tracey Brooks nor Paul Tonko, Steck’s two main rivals in the primary, have yet to make strong inroads in that county.

 

 



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