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Petitioners File Lawsuit to Void the 2016 Revaluation

countycourthouseA group of 151 property owners from the Village of Scarsdale, called the Scarsdale Committee for Fair Assessment, has filed an Article 78 proceeding and a civil action on behalf of themself and the other Scarsdale taxpayers in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of Westchester. The suit was filed on January 13, 2017 to comply with a deadline to file not more than three months after the official 2016 assessment roll for the Village of Scarsdale was filed.

The property owners, representing about 2.6% of the total property owners in the Village of Scarsdale, are represented by Attorney Robert Bernstein, an Edgemont resident who has been a champion of the incorporation of Edgemont for many years. The petition was verified by Mayra Kirkendall-Rodriguez of the Village of Scarsdale. The suit names Village Assessor Nanette Albanese, the Village of Scarsdale and the Mayor and the Board of Trustees of Scarsdale.

The petition asks the court to annul, void and rescind the 2016 assessment roll of the Town/Village of Scarsdale and permanently enjoin the Village from levying taxes on the 2016 roll while rolling back assessments to the prior tax roll which should be "adjusted by the results of any and all grievance proceedings, tax certiorari proceedings and any additions or subtractions to the assessment roll by the assessor in the ordinary course due to new construction and improvements."

If the Village does not rollback assessments to the prior year the petition asks for refunds for the petitioners who "paid more than their fair share ... as determined by what they would have had to pay had there been a rollback of the assessment roll."

The 81-page lawsuit details the history of both the 2014 and 2016 the revaluations, questions the validity of the direct market model used in the 2016 revaluation and contends that owners of Scarsdale's smaller homes now bear more than their fair share of the local property burden.

The filing contains many exhibits, presumably gathered from FOIL requests for emails to and from the Village Assessor's office, Village Manager's office, John Ryan, Al Gatta, John Wolham and others.

It documents errors in the data collection process. In a May 31, 2016 email from Albanese to Ryan she writes, "Gerd marked parcels with plus location adjustments for reasons that are not readily obvious, understandable or explained. In a similar fashion , he also marked other parcels with location and/or size adjustments for reasons I can't figure out either. We'll need good explanations for these types of adjustments and will need them ASAP ... the phone will start ringing off the hook real soon ... Yikes!"

It also claims that prominent elected officials were given favorable tax treatment and presents emails to backup this assertion. In a May 10, 2016 email from from Albanese to Ryan concerning a house at 42 Olmsted Road, Albanese says, "FYI ... this sold for a very high price 2 years ago, or so ago and was subsequently completely gutted (see photos in PAS.) Geothermal heating system, new high-end finishes etc. She's the president of the Scarsdale Board of Education and could be ... Well, you know. Will keep trying .... Thanks." There is no evidence that any Village official requested special treatment.

The filing includes emails documenting many errors in data collection and valuations. A June 10, 2016 email from Patrick McEvily in the assessor's office to Ryan says, "Mrs. Kadison does not have a pool on her property. I removed the pool from the inventory but there is no change in the value. If we make changes in inventory and they impact value, shouldn't the new assessment reflect this change or do I make the change by hand?"

In one lengthy note, Albanese offers an explanation of how circumstances caused the perfect storm to undermine the second revaluation. She cites the following:

Staffing: The assessor's office was short staffed and under stress to handle 756 small claim filings from the 2014 revaluation to prepare and file the 2015 tentative assessment roll.

Complaints: "A never-ending bombardment of nasty complaints from residents, brokers and potential buys about the 2014 reval, including continued pressure and demand for responses to certain issues, documentation and questions about the 2014 reval, long after the May 27, 2014 presentation by Tyler Technologies."

Software: Inadequate assessment software system that is "not written in modern computer language, lacks valuation capabilities applicable to revaluation and the corresponding revaluation components." The department then opted to use NYS RPS software but struggled to bridge it back to the Village SCA software system.

John Ryan: "He became increasingly more difficult to work with and to pin down a timeline for delivery of final values and sometimes refused to do things that I asked of him by responding to my emails. He compounded our computer system problems by not staying on top of our vendor and did not see that it was his responsibility to our taxpayers to shoulder the burden."

The list of the 151 petitioners includes some who often spoke out at Village meetings including Mayra and Brice Kirkendall Rodriguez, Phil Maresco, Norton Rosenzweig and Gregory Soldatenko, but does not include others who also fiercely criticized the Trustees, the Assessor and the 2016 Revaluation including Robert Berg, Robert Harrison, Steve Rakoff and Ron Parlato. We asked Berg why he did not add his name to the list and he explained that since his assessment went down between 2014 and 2016 he had nothing to gain from the action. This may also be the case with Rakoff and Parlato.

One petitioner who was not over assessed joined the suit anyway. He explained, "I joined the Article 78 even though I wasn't over-assessed after grieving my initial valuation. The issues here go beyond economic harm. Taxation lies at the very heart of municipal government. If taxes cannot be assessed in the most competent and open way possible, it creates a fault line at the heart of the entire system. I do believe that the Trustees who voted for this latest assessment were misled and that the Village attorney has acted in good faith in laying out the Village's options or lack thereof. The blame seems to lie with the person who carried out the assessment, John Ryan, who misled, coerced and ultimately showed his incompetence. That being said, I view this Article 78 action as a way for residents to act on the Village's behalf. The Village cannot nullify its published tax roll, but residents acting on its behalf can do so. I do hope the Village sees the Article 78 proceeding as a lifeline that extricates it from a rotten situation and given that, chooses not to fight it."

We asked the Mayor and Village Attorney Wayne Esannason for a comment on the suit. Esannason declined to answer questions about who would defend the Village and what the potential cost might be to taxpayers. He said that the Article 78 had been received, but that the Village had not yet been served and he could not comment on active litigation.

In the past, Mayor Jon Mark repeatedly owned up to flaws in the 2016 revaluation, but said that the grievance process was the way for residents to address inequities. At the October 16, 2016 meeting of the Village Board, Mark quoted legal precedent which says, "The town board, therefore, has no authority to substitute its judgment for that of the assessor and the exclusive remedy available to a property owner, who considers himself aggrieved by reason of any assessment made by the assessor, is that which is provided by Article 5 and Article 7 of the Real Property Tax Law."

He also reviewed the possibility of asking the NYS Legislature to void the revaluation, offering the following; "The threshold question before us is not whether we can make such a request, but rather if we did and even if it were granted would that be the best result for the Village as a whole. It is on this threshold question that I have a different view from those residents who have urged us to make such a request. I believe that even if the final 2015 assessment roll could be reinstated, that would not be the best result, have stated so previously and will repeat some of what I have said before on this subject."

He explained, "As a practical matter, if authorizing legislation was passed, implementation would likely not be feasible until deep into 2017 either concurrent with the time for issuance of initial tax bills – or even after initial tax bills went out based on the 2016 valuations still in place. This would create a chaotic scenario in the administration of taxes on the County and local level increasing the possibility of incorrect billings, the need to issue refunds and additional tax bills. Such a scenario would be another source of distress for residents that cannot be dismissed."

Robert Berg, who headed The Assessment Revaluation Committee who recommended the first revaluation, said that he repeatedly raised red flags about the 2016 revaluation before June 1, 2016, calling it a train wreck waiting to happen.

Berg said, "The Village has already acknowledged that Ryan screwed up. The New York State Office of Real Property Assessment found that the Ryan reval undervalued Scarsdale real estate by $1 billion and assigned an equalization rate to bring Scarsdale up to fair market value."

Berg predicted that "It was going to be tough for the Village to defend this revaluation," and suggested that it might be less expensive for the Village to settle the case, give refunds for overpayment to the 151 petitioners and rollback assessments to the adjusted 2014 tax roll than to litigate and perhaps lose in court.

About the Mayor's claim that the Village had no recourse once the flawed tax roll was filed, Berg said, "The Village had a basis to challenge this and should have pursued it." Berg concluded, "The Village is in a real pickle here and it could have been avoided had they waited another year or two to do this next revaluation."

Another resident took the long view. "It is their right to sue, and I am not suggesting that the reval situation was/is a good one, but legal merits aside, it will cost the taxpayers more money, so it seems a counter-productive action to me. The Village will now have to hire counsel and pay for the defense of the suit, using already stretched time and money resources ... and these very people will have to pay for that, too. It's illogical to me! Can't help but wonder if they will be the first to complain that they are not getting the treatment they feel they deserve on the ordinary business of the community? As for the merits, the legitimate concerns about the practices and oversight of the Ryan Reval are unquestioned by most, including the Trustees, so accusations of corruption on the part of our volunteer Board of Trustees? Really? That is way WAY too far! I am further confused by the energy spent to return to the last reval... didn't it also have over 1000 grievances? Didn't a whole bunch of folks hate that outcome too? Isn't that why the Village pursued a reval adjustment in the first place? Seems like we should remember the big picture -- the real issue is that 40+ years went by without a reassessment, leaving a great deal of unfair tax burdens around. And now, its painful getting that fixed. Its not going to be easy, and there needs a good deal of work done on this, and probably quickly. Ryan was a step backward, but let's move forward... and spend our resources productively."

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