by Ted Carroll, Guest Columnist
The Joe Sack & Julie Killian led GOP majority on the Rye City Council has recently suffered a series of silent backroom credibility blows, all self inflicted, all so avoidable but all eerily predictable. Party plums always come at a price.
An elected official looking the other way from wrongdoing is participating in wrongdoing. Silence in the face of unethical favoritism speaks at thunderous volume. Dismissing evidence of municipal corruption is in itself corrupt. These truths are held to be self evident even if someone wants to tell you they are not. For this month’s column we’d like to know just how big you’d like your property tax reduction? Because apparently everything flowing through 1051 Boston Post Road these days involves influence and has a price. Consider:
Let’s stipulate that Rye’s Assistant City Manager Eleanor Militana is a bright, efficient and dutiful municipal employee, trusted by the City Council enough to act as City Manager last year during the period when Mr. Culross departed and Mr. Serrano had not yet arrived. The city charter thus endowed her with responsibilities and authorities no other city employee has. Since Mr. Serrano’s arrival she has returned apparently seamlessly to her number 2 role at the top of our small managerial pyramid, overseeing senior department employee’s including the city tax assessor.
So most here were caught completely unawares last week when it bubbled up that concerning the tax assessment level on Ms. Militana’s own personal home, this 2nd-in-Command’s unpublicized wish for a sizable tax reduction was apparently a command. Her hierarchal subordinate, the city assessor, Noreen Whitty, and her professional legal partner, the city attorney, Kristen Wilson (who is tasked in guarding against selective property tax reassessments), both offered no known objection to an assessment reduction for their friend of – 20%. 20% was exactly what she requested – 20% was exactly what she received. And to ice the cake, there was apparently no expensive outside tax reduction advisor or attorney required. She represented herself. How sweet it is. [See source document here.]
Moving up our local lucky favor tree, we also have the curious case of former Rye City Judge Richard Runes, whose primary household income stream during his time on the Rye bench apparently came from being one of New York State’s top political lobbyists. Not content with depositing only his judicial salary from Rye, this dual Jurist / Registered Special Interest Advocate beginning in 2006 filed a series of assessment reduction actions against the city, grieving what he felt was unfair treatment. The same city assessor and the city attorney (who argued cases in front of him) miraculously agreed and they over time provided him an overall assessment reduction of more than – 30%. Case Closed! (Or it might have been until Preet Bharara found our ex-judge smack at the center of both the Shelly Silver and Dean Skelos frauds, which is an uncomfortable place to be for sure.) [See source document here.]
Finally, nearing the apparent apex of our local lucky favor tree is Rye’s alpha political donor family – The Gates’ – of Magnolia Place. How many times do city officials have to ignore documentary evidence repeatedly delivered to them that their entire ‘reassessment-upon-renovation’ process is a joke? There are never apparently enough times if you continue to give the right people large amounts of cash, for their campaigns.
So if you were to apparently spend say a million dollars completely reconfiguring and remodeling your home you’d expect the city to sock it to you with maybe a 30-40-50% or upwards reassessment present. And they’d want it immediately – so as not to ‘unduly burden’ the rest of the Rye taxpayers. And they definitely wouldn’t let you say, live in the unfinished structure with your kids without any Certificate of Occupancy, because it would be totally unsafe and totally illegal, for even one night let alone say several months. The actual details here are too depressing to go on but the resulting actual assessment percentage increase given can be counted on just a few fingers, while the household tax savings is a 5 digit dollar number, annually.
No one who’s read this far will miss the inference that if someone receives a selectively lowered or artificially suppressed Rye property tax assessment they can divert the funds they personally save as a result as they chose. Many legitimate resident taxpayers grieve their assessments and are awarded a reduction on fully factual merits. Others it appears instead may make a secret bargain with those who can use their political influence to sway local municipal construction and assessment decision makers. Former Rye City Mayor Doug French had two separate STAR property tax exemptions hidden in plain sight for 10 years on the tax rolls in front of Noreen Whitty’s own nose. She and he called it an error and oversight. NYS law calls it a felony – and the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York might also possibly use a Latin legal term – ‘Quid pro quo.’
Election season is soon upon us so readers here should expect additional coverage on where some of these lucky assessment savings dollars might be turning up – and who they might be empowering. With tax day just in the rear-view mirror, I believe we can all give thanks for all the blessings government bestows upon us. Especially the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Right, Mayor Sack?
Ted Carroll was recently awarded a property assessment reduction by one court, then had it taken away by another, has made no recent political donations, is a lifelong Rye resident, a Certified Public Accountant, and a partner at Noson Lawen Partners, a media industry private equity firm.
See Carroll’s other 2016 MyRye.com commentaries here: