With the clock quickly running out on Greenburgh enacting the last remaining statutory remedy to mitigate the impact of thousands of homeowners experiencing sudden spikes in their assessments of 50% of more – resulting in as much as $10,000 or more in higher property taxes next year — Town officials last night staged a public hearing to oppose any plan to help.
The Town last night closed the hearing after hearing comment for a couple hours, but kept the record open for another nine days to receive written comments; by law, the Town has until May 2 to decide whether to adopt the five-year phase in. Because town officials already came out against the measure before the hearing even began, chances of its being approved are slim to none.
Normally, when measures are introduced for the first time for public hearing, the sponsor of the measure – in this case it was Town Supervisor Paul Feiner – explains what the proposed law is about.
But rather than do that, Mr. Feiner asked Town Tax Assessor Edye McCarthy to explain why the Town should oppose the measure instead.
Then, in addition to reading emails she claimed to have received opposing the five-year phase in – she read none in favor — Ms. McCarthy announced that the Town had just received a new “opinion” from a lawyer with the New York State Office of Real Property Tax Services, who once again asserted, just as he had in an email two weeks ago, that the five-year phase-in is “ineffective” because it requires most of the tax burden to be front-loaded in the first year of the five-year plan.
The tactic of waiting until a hearing before springing on the public what some consider a critically important new piece of evidence is known as “sandbagging” one’s opponents, and here, town officials not only sat on the new “opinion” until the hearing, they made it worse by not having the lawyer who wrote it available to answer any questions like, for example, whether there was any statutory bar to interpreting the statute the way ECC president Bob Bernstein and the Village of Irvington officials have read it.
Lawyers from Irvington and Mr. Bernstein said the state lawyer’s interpretation was contrary to the plain meaning of the words of the statute, contrary to its legislative intent and, if valid, would render an entire section of the statute meaningless, which is contrary to all principles of statutory interpretation.
Because the lawyer from the tax department was not there to respond – and because the tax department instead sent the same representative it sent two weeks ago who is not a lawyer and conceded he couldn’t speak to how the statute should or could be interpreted. All he said he could do in that regard was repeat what the lawyer had said in the email.
So intent though were town officials to show that there was no way the Town would adopt a measure to protect thousands of taxpayers in Irvington and Edgemont who might be forced to sell their homes because of the Town’s actions that Councilman Francis Sheehan interrupted the hearing at one point to ask Ms. McCarthy to read the second “email” from the lawyer in its entirety.
But having Ms. McCarthy read the email out loud didn’t make his arguments any more compelling and indeed, appeared to demonstrate the absurdity of having a state official not even in the room trash as “largely ineffective” a state law specifically intended to encourage municipalities to do revaluations by offering a state sanctioned mitigation plan.
Mr. Feiner meanwhile today announced that he was close to coming up with a new mitigation plan – but said it wouldn’t be announced until late next week.
By law, however, any phase-in of the new assessments must be pursuant to Section 1904 of the Real Property Tax Law, any such phase-in must be enacted by May 2, and any substantive change in the text of what’s already on the table would have to be the subject of a new legal notice and public hearing – none of which the Town has time to do.
“Mr. Feiner may be well intentioned in trying to come up with something other than the five-year phase in, but legally his hands are tied right now – it’s either that or nothing,” Mr. Bernstein said.
“If the Town wanted to protect its residents, it knows what to do,” Mr. Bernstein said. “Here, however, it’s clear the Town does not want to avail itself of the remedies offered by the state, which is really too bad because a lot of people will suffer as a result.”
After the town board meeting, town board members were seen conferring with Mr. Feiner about what to do. One town board member, who was angry that the five-year phase in was even being considered, was heard shouting, “I don’t see why just because Edgemont, Irvington and Hastings say we should do it, we now have to do it.”
Mr. Bernstein also said that residents of Edgemont have seen this pattern of behavior from the Town many times before, but that for the hard hit residents of Irvington, “This may be the first time they’ve ever had a real chance to see how truly dysfunctional Greenburgh’s government can be – and it’s going to cost many of them a lot of money and create a lot of hardship.”
Mr. Feiner said today he would also seek “legal opinions” from the office of Governor Cuomo. However, it is state policy among the offices of the Governor, Attorney General and the State Comptroller not to provide legal advice to municipalities.
“Lawyers in Albany working at those state government offices will not help the Town out of a problem which the Town created for itself and which the Town already has available to it several state remedies that it could use but won’t,” Mr. Bernstein said.