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realestatetaxesFollowing two tumultuous property tax revaluations in Scarsdale in 2014 and 2016, resulting in a lack of confidence in the revaluation processes and assessor's office and an Article 78 proceeding, the Village hired management consultants to examine the assessor's office and the revaluation process.

In June 2017, The Village retained Management Partners for a fee of $34,990 to "Review the assessment department's structure, staffing, policies, workflow processes, and use of technology to identify strategies and best practices that will lead to increased efficiency and effectiveness in the functional responsibilities of the department as well as improved customer service."

After eight months of work, the consultants issued their report and came to Village Hall to present it on February 27. It is available on the Village website here. Though hundreds of concerned and sometimes angry residents had attended prior meetings about the revaluation, only a few people showed up for the presentation. Among the sparse audience were three reporters from the Scarsdale Inquirer, a few members of the Scarsdale Forum and candidates for Village trustee. A recent meeting about recycling and trash pick up drew a much larger group to Village Hall, so it appears that concern about assessments has waned.

The consultant's report contains 41 recommendations for improving the way the assessor's eepartment works both internally and externally, providing suggestions on how the staff should communicate with the public, hire and supervise outside vendors, use technology and more. The recommendations address some of the problems the Village experienced with the 2016 Ryan revaluation, which was done on the heels of the 2014 revaluation.

As background, following the 2014 revaluation, 18% of property owners filed grievances, as many owners of high-end properties who received the largest increases, believed these increases were excessive. As a result, John Ryan, the man who served as the monitor for the 2014 Tyler revaluation was retained to do a second revaluation, without the issuance of an RFP or consideration of other contractors. He had worked well with Village Assessor Nanette Albanese during the 2014 revaluation and she had confidence that he could conduct this follow up revaluation efficiently. But during the process it became apparent that Ryan did not have an adequate team, a sufficient model or a process in place to ensure a quality revaluation.

When the results came in, the Scarsdale valuation was not at 100% of market value, as it should be following a revaluation, but came in at only 89.14% of market value. This led the state to assign the Village an equalization rate. According to the report, "The high percentage of parcel valuation changes, and their significance, inconsistency between parcels and the difficulty in understanding how the changes were made fueled public distrust in the process."

Looking at the history of the number of grievances in Scarsdale it is evident that grievances rose due to mistrust of the valuation process.

Grievances

The 39-page report includes recommendations for improving the way the assessor's office now works and for planning and conducting the next revaluation. You can read the report online. However here are some highlights from the report.

Staffing:

An examination of the staffing of the Assessor's Office in relation to the number of parcels in the Village, shows that in comparison to neighboring towns, Scarsdale's department is adequately staffed and compensation is commensurate. However, they recommended that during a revaluation, staff should be borrowed from other departments or part-timers hired to respond to the public.

staffingassessor

The consultants also found that on average, the Assessor's Department spends $142,145 per year for professional support for appraisals, property inspections, data collection, small claims filing and negotiations and legal support for SCAR and Tax Certiorari proceedings." It says, "Given the number of grievances and claims, this level of support is higher than would normally be expected. If the total number of appeals and staff remain at the current level, some level of outside assistance will be needed. However, if appeals decrease and return closer to the pre-2014 level, the appeal workload could be handled in house."

Office:

The consultants analyzed the structure of the assessor's office and the physical layout of the space in order to make recommendations about improving interactions with the public and customer service.

Since so much of the property information is available online, they recommended that a computer terminal with the property records be made available to people who come to Village Hall. They also recommended a redesign of the property information webpages so information can be easily accessed and understood.

Technology:

Inadequate software was also to blame in the 2016 revaluation and consultants found that the assessor's department now uses eight different software packages.
The NYS Office of Real Property Services software is currently being update by the NYS Department of Taxation and Finance. It is scheduled for release in late 2019. It will be "a consolidated web-based system, rather than the current patchwork of separate software installations that run on individual computers."

In order to address their technology issues, the consultants recommend that the Village "research and purchase an assessment software package that meets industry standards and facilitate future mass appraisal revaluations."

Interactions with the Public:

Addressing claims that the personnel in the assessor's office were rude and not helpful, the consultants recommended the staff go through customer service training to improve communications skills and transparency.

Poor communications were also cited. The consultants found that "some residents do not trust the results of the two recent revaluations," and recommends that a communications plan is developed to increase transparency and build trust. They found that there were inconsistencies in the way information was provided and therefore recommended that the Village "Provide notice to property owners about data changes through a variety of communication channels and allow ample opportunity for response as part of each assessment or revaluation." They suggested that the village produce videos to explain the assessment process and air them on local cable channels.

These videos could also be used to explain the importance of allowing an inspector inside the house as part of the assessment process or to guide a resident through the grievance procedure.

Best Practices:

The consultants looked at a few other municipalities and determined that they used "transparent and sound procedures, frequent communications with property owners to develop trust in the process." All three of these towns conduct annual review of town/village wide property valuation trends through sales data, to maintain accurate up to date parcel values. As a result, the report claims that "Residents have accepted frequent changes to their property assessments which is reflected in steady decline of grievance filings."

The consultants made the following recommendations concerning a future revaluation.

  • It should be carefully planned with more public outreach and engagement
  • It should allow for mid-course corrections when needed
  • The software solutions should be considered in advance.
  • A monitor should be hired to provide oversight of the vendor.
  • Staffing of the Assessor's Office should be supplemented during the revaluation.
  • Annually sales trends analyses should be done to see if certain neighborhoods need to be adjusted.
  • A Village-wide assessment should be conducted no less than every five years

The consultants also sought to avoid future issues with hiring vendors to do the work. They suggested the use the RFP process for all future reassessment projects, using the ORPTS RFP as a template.

Other recommended steps include:

-Holding a meeting with contractors prior to submission of proposals to answer questions.

-Interviewing prospective contractors "about their experience and knowledge about property attributes in general, and conditions similar to Scarsdale.

-Establishing a committee to assist with the evaluation of the consultants and to select the vendor. The report recommends that the committee be selected by the Village Board and include the assessor, Village attorney, a representative from the Village Manager's office and possibly a tax attorney, property appraiser, real estate agent or other professionals.

-The Village Assessor be responsible for the RFP process and that a clear and consider explanation of responsibilities, along with a detailed project timeline is provided to all contractual parties including the monitor, the contractor and the staff of the Assessor's Department.

In addition to outlining procedures, the report recommends that the model and methodology for conducting the valuation estimate calculations is included in the required documentation provided to the Village.

The report goes on to make recommendations concerning the Board of Assessment Review and the grievance procedure which you can review here:

It concludes by recommending that for the next revaluation "there is a fully transparent process, ample communications and clear instructions for property owners."

Following the presentation by Kevin Knutson's of Management Partners, Trustees and the public were given the opportunity to ask questions.

In response to the recommendation about the assignment of a revaluation committee to supervise an RFP, Knutson said, "They're good for all kinds of large scale projects." However his colleague Thomas Frey admitted that he "did not know of any local communities that created such a committee."

Trustee Callaghan said, "All of a sudden it turns out Ryan is a flim-flam man. How do we avoid that in the future?" Knutson recommended an RFP process and calling references.

Trustee Marc Samwick thought the report had not gone far enough. He said, "I thought you would look at other towns and pick out best practices and learn from the more positive experiences. ... I was expecting more meat on the bones for how we can learn from them. ... Bronxville does their valuations in house. We also discussed that Bronxville had a higher number of grievances than usual this year – why? That wasn't given enough attention in this report."

Knutson replied, "We are focusing on what you can do today to make it go better."

Samwick continued, "I was hoping to find communities that minimized grievances and why? Is there any trending analysis for each of these communities? How can we compare? Did you look at the assessor's offices FTE's in relation to how many parcels there are? It looks like we are almost staffed to do this in house."

Carl Finger asked, "If you have the data – can you supply it at a later date?"

Trustee Callaghan turned to page 36 of the report and read, "A high level of care should be taken during the next revaluation to make sure there is ample communication etc. What do you think the timeframe should be?"

Trustee Veron said, "So much planning is needed in advance – we should start to think about this now."

Trustee Samwick, "You recommend tighter controls to allow for midcourse corrections when needed? Frey responded, "You need milestones in place – if you start to see that these dates aren't being met, you have to take steps."

In public comments,

Lee Fischman said, "The Forum's Assessment Committee is drafting a report that will probably be ready in the spring. It will be more forensic and technical in nature.
You can use this as well as a resource."

Justin Arest said, "I look forward to the additional data that has been requested. I would appreciate more information about the recommendations. Please elaborate why something is best practice and please provide the back up."

Bob Berg said, "I was not in favor of hiring a consultant. I thought it would be a white wash. But now I think it's a gray wash – it's a C+. It's written in a way to protect the current office. We lose from that. We could do a better job solving the issues. That said, if you read between the lines, you learn a lot. We are paying more, we have a lighter workload, and we had a disastrous result. It doesn't do it to say "improve customer service." You don't address how that Ryan reval came about. Why did that happen? Is it common to do one right after another one was done? Tyler was at 100% valuation and Ryan was at 94% - that was a disaster and you don't go into why that happened."

Steve Pass asked,"Did Mamaroneck provide the mathematical model used in their reval to residents?" Frey replied "no." Pass asked, "Did the Town have access to the mathematical model used?" Frey said, "I am not sure."

Michael Levine said, "You make it clear that you did not analyze the methodologies or review the results of the previous revaluations. You might have made different recommendations if you had reviewed the revaluations. ...There is a lot about procedural fairness, but there's nothing about unfair results. Without being on guard for this, you're not defining that this has to be done. The report assumes that the revaluation will be done correctly. It does not deal with the potential problem that the revaluation will be substantively insufficient...Can it be done fairly – can it be defended as fair? Are those mechanisms in place? "

The meeting concluded with the consultants agreeing to provide implementation steps for all their recommendations and additional data on the other towns they studied.

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suffragentsThe SuffragentsThe League of Women Voters of Westchester (LWVW) has rescheduled their celebratory fundraiser to mark 100 years of women's suffrage in New York State, to Sunday March 25 from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm at 65 Church Lane in Scarsdale. Brooke Kroeger, author of The Suffragents, will tell the untold story of how a group of prominent and influential men came together to help women win the right to vote.

New York State voters approved women's right to vote on November 17, 1917, three years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment that approved women's suffrage on the federal level. In 1917: When Women Won the Right to Vote, NY Times correspondent, Tessa Melvin wrote that, "Nowhere was the effort to gain the right to the state vote more intense than in Westchester County... At its height, the suffragette movement in the county enrolled 20,000 women and included 102 suffragette clubs, according to material in the files of the Westchester County Historical Society." Every Westchester town voted in favor of the referendum. Women organizers included New Rochelle's Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the Woman's Suffrage Party, which later became the New York State League of Women Voters. (Note that Ms. Melvin's article misspelled Marion Sinek's name (Finek) and that they were suffragists not suffragettes.)

"The history of women's suffrage and the LWVW is deeply intertwined," says LWVW PBrooke Kroegerresident Marylou Green. "Since 1919, our dedicated volunteers have been providing the public with factual, nonpartisan information about our government and elected officials. We produce voting guides for elections throughout the county, strive to elicit specific opinions and proposals from candidates rather than marketing soundbites, and monitor the workings of Westchester government and the Westchester Board of Elections. Many of us know the story of the suffragists in New York and the nation, but have not heard about the essential support they received from influential men who organized for the movement. It's time to celebrate them also."

Champagne, wine, hot hors d'oeuvres, finger food, and desserts will be served at this festive event. Tickets are $75 each. Payment can be made online via credit card or PayPal at lwvw.org or by mailing a check, payable to LWVW Inc., to 570 Taxter Road, Suite 565, Elmsford, New York 10523. For additional information please contact the League office at 949-0507 or marylougreen14@gmail.com.

The event was rescheduled due to the storm that hit Scarsdale on Friday March 2.

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NeutralizationAmong its many activities, each year, the League of Women Voters assists local officials at the Westchester County Naturalization Court by welcoming new citizens, and providing them with important voter information. This program is coordinated by the League of Women Voters of Westchester, who, through various local Westchester Leagues, welcomes thousands of new citizens each year. On January 25th, two members of the Scarsdale League attended the Naturalization Hearing in White Plains, and it was a day to be remembered for them, and even more so for the 120 soon-to-be new citizens. These immigrants filled the courtroom to capacity along with their families and friends who accompanied them to witness their final step to U.S. citizenship. The new citizens varied in age from young adults to senior citizens, all with diverse backgrounds. They represented immigrants from Latin America, Mexico, China, Japan, Denmark, the Middle East, Caribbean and many other countries. 

After all the participants were called up individually to hand in their green cards, the heart-warming ceremony began. Honorable David Everett, Supreme Court Judge welcomed the Speakersoon-to-be citizens to his court and the country. County Clerk, Timothy Idoni then administered the Oath of Allegiance and led the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, each recited formally by the new citizens. The formalities and oaths touched many in the courtroom. Judge Everett reminded the new citizens that democracy is not a spectator sport and they should become involved in their communities. He recommended they participate in Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and other community organizations. He reminded the new citizens that he also was the son of immigrants, and it is not about where you come from but what you make of yourself. Judge Everett stressed the importance of voting in elections and encouraged the new citizens to utilize their new right to vote! He provided a lot of insight and inspiration to the group, which was heartfelt and inspired tears of joy for some.

After the citizens were called up individually to receive their Naturalization Certificate, officially proclaiming their citizenship of the United States, they were able to proceed outside the courtroom where The County Board of Elections was on hand to assist with voter registration. The U.S. Passport office also was there to help the new citizens obtain Shaking handstheir passports with photo services, applications and advisors to assist with the application process. Each citizen appeared to cherish both their new right to vote and their ability to obtain a U.S. passport.

From speaking with the new citizens, the process to become a United States citizen is complex and takes many months to complete. In addition to the many requirements for citizenship, each potential citizen needs to complete a background check by the FBI, submit photos and fingerprinting, pass two exams, and be interviewed by Immigration Services. It was clear from a day at Naturalization Court that those who were sworn in felt that it was all worth it.

The Naturalization Hearings, open to the public, occur twice a month in White Plains where the County swears in about 125 new citizens at a time. For more information about the work of the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale, please visit their website here.

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petitionsThe Scarsdale Citizens' Non-Partisan Party (SCNP) announced that nominating petitions for Justin Arest, Lena Crandall and Jane E. Veron as candidates for Village Trustee were delivered to the Village Clerk on February 6, 2018. While 289 signatures were delivered to the clerk, petition signatures continued to arrive totaling over 330 signatures, reflecting a broad base of community support at this early stage.

The Campaign Committee will support these individuals and assist them in in their efforts to meet and speak with members of the community over the weeks leading up to the General Village Election.

The SCNP extends its sincerest thanks to all those volunteers who canvassed the Village to collect signatures, as well as to those who signed the nominating petitions for the candidates.

The General Village Election will take place Tuesday, March 20, 2018. All Election Districts will be voting at the Scarsdale Library, 54 Olmsted Road. Hours of the election are 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. and Noon to 9:00 p.m.

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eustaceandvoice2During a fairly routine meeting of the Scarsdale Board of Trustees on January 23, trustees provided a variety of updates and status reports for residents that ranged from volunteerism and the "Cable TV Needs Survey," to budget planning and tree code.

Trustee Carl Finger opened the meeting by reviewing recent village bills, and noting that the village bidding process is quite thorough, with staff working diligently to protect taxpayer dollars. "They look at every penny for us... By the time we see it, the hard work is done."

Mayor's Comments
Mayor Dan Hochvert's comments were brief; he began by expressing admiration for teenage volunteers he met on Martin Luther King Day at the Westchester Reform Temple. These "J Teens" come from throughout Westchester and participate in a variety of local volunteer projects. Last week, they were packing medical kits for areas impacted by major storms, such as Puerto Rico. "The enthusiasm (and) the leadership that I saw in these teenagers made me sure that the future of Westchester is going to be great," Hochvert said. He exchanged contact information with the group, "so that volunteer groups in Scarsdale could call on them, since they are looking for more opportunities."

He also announced ongoing work to revise an RFP on nut weed (nut grass) control for Harwood Park and Harcourt Woods, in an effort to eliminate it in these green spaces. And, finally, he noted that the village administration and trustees have begun their annual budget process.

Trustee Committee and Liaison Reports
Trustee Seth Ross announced that the Scarsdale Cable Television Commission still is seeking responses to its "Cable TV Needs Survey," which closes on Wednesday, January 31. He asked residents to take some time to complete the online questionnaire, which can be accessed here. "We've had quite a number of responses, but not nearly as many as we were hoping," Ross reported. "More responses will enable the village to negotiate significantly better agreements with cable providers."

Ross also reminded the public to learn more about village boards and councils, almost all of which have openings now or in coming months. He also encouraged residents to get involved in local civic matters by applying to any particular board or council: "I hope that those who have served previously and those who have not will seriously consider serving the village in these capacities." To learn more, visit the village's "Boards and Councils" webpage.

Trustee Carl Finger continued by discussing finance committee matters, specifically the first budget discussions of the year. "We're off to what I think is going to be a very productive and efficient budget for the coming fiscal year." He added, "I encourage everybody to attend, if they can, any of the upcoming public meetings... It's very informative. The staff ... and the department heads are all working very hard watching our bottom line."

Trustee Jane Veron provided an update on Scarsdale Parks and Recreation matters, specifically its interest in preventing the spread of the flu and the need to "remind those engaging in sports to be mindful of ensuring sanitary conditions." The department sent flu prevention alerts to participants in its programs, and worked with the school district in getting word out to students and parents. Veron also discussed the work of the Scarsdale Drug and Alcohol Task Force, which will host "Healthy Brain Day" on April 19-20, to promote understanding of the effect of substances on the brain.

She then changed gears and thanked the Scarsdale Arts Council, which supervised the Chase Park installation of Pearl Necklace, by Simone Kestelman. Veron said that the work was enjoyed for many months and she looks forward to future public installations. Last, Veron thanked the community for its feedback on the recently released sanitation operations study. "We've received emails, phone calls (and) in-person commentary on the (recycling) proposal that was presented by the CAC (Conservation Advisory Council)," said Veron. "We will be having an information session next Tuesday at 7:00 pm, where we will continue to discuss the study." The public is invited to attend.

Next up was Trustee Deborah Pekarek, who discussed the ongoing process to amend the village's tree code to better preserve Scarsdale's tree canopy. Earlier in the evening, the Scarsdale Law and Sustainability Committees met with village staff, and members of the Friends of Scarsdale Parks and the CAC to review proposed amendments. The discussion yielded additional ideas and revisions, and the public will be advised of future developments and meetings.

Pekarek then briefly mentioned her participation in recent meetings with the Colonial Acres Neighborhood Association and League of Women Voters, and concluded her remarks by announcing that four new officers have joined the Scarsdale Police Department. They are Jamie Crespo, Viet Dang, Terrence Doyle and Maxwell Goldberg. "We welcome our four new officers to the Scarsdale Police Department and we look forward to working with them and anticipate that they will serve the village with care, concern and professionalism," she said.

Public Comments
Lena Crandall, Fox Meadow Road, mentioned that the Scarsdale Forum will host its annual Winterfest event on Saturday, February 3, at 7:00 pm. The event is open to forum members and their guests; any residents who are not members of the organization may join here.

Mayra Kirkendall-Rodriguez, Fox Meadow Road, invited the public to attend an upcoming Scarsdale Forum event, "What is the School Bond and Should You Vote for It?" on Thursday, February 1, at 7:30 pm. She also discussed the forum's recently completed "Traffic Survey Report," in which it recommends that Scarsdale Village allocate resources to improve compliance with state and local traffic code provisions. Over 700 respondents completed the survey; a significant number cited concerns about walking, driving and cycling in the village.

Madelaine Eppenstein, Autenreith Road, followed up on Kirkendall-Rodriguez' comments, and thanked the community for its participation in the traffic survey, and the trustees and village administration for considering the forum report. She also provided news about Friends of the Scarsdale Parks, which will coordinate its fourth annual "Community Planting Day" and is working with village staff on a longer-term tree planting species list.

Michael Rubin, Crossway, added to Trustee Ross' comments on the cable TV survey. He explained that public input is important in determining future cable television needs, and survey data will help determine what the village should focus on when renegotiating contracts with Verizon and Altice cable television providers. Residents are urged to complete the online survey if they haven't already.

Bob Harrison, Fox Meadow Road, asked about the village's 2018-19 budget projections, specifically the proposed tax increase for homeowners. Village Manager Steve Pappalardo reported that the first pass of the budget represents a 2.18 percent tax levy increase, well under the 3.78 percent tax levy cap for Scarsdale. Pappalardo further explained that a number of factors will alter the first draft, so the information is very preliminary.

Harrison then mentioned the upcoming CAC meeting on sanitation services and voiced his objections to recent recommendation for curbside pickup of commingled recyclables. He also cited other residents' comments about the effect the proposal will have on senior citizens, and urged no change in pickup procedures. Harrison went on to state his concerns about the planned Wynmor Park tennis court renovations, and wondered why the trustees awarded a contract costing $110,361 when the project was budgeted at $75,000. Pappalardo explained that the village received three bids that were similar in cost, which indicated that staff didn't budget enough funds for the project. He also provided an explanation about how the bids were structured and the contractor selection process.

Laura Halligan, a new contributor to scarsdale10583.com, is a local writer, editor and marketing consultant. She is principal of Pinch Hit Prose and provides communications services to entrepreneurs, small businesses and nonprofits.

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