Little Falls City Assessor Joy Presta has filed a complaint against First Ward Alderman Jeffrey Gressler, Herkimer County Administrator James Wallace and county Legislature Clerk Carole LaLonde alleging the actions of Gressler, Wallace and the Legislature damaged her name and professional reputation, caused her mental distress and anguish and caused the loss of her county employment.
The Herkimer County Supreme Court summons also alleges Gressler “knowingly and maliciously interfered in a tortuous manner” with the Real Property Tax Law contract between the city of Little Falls and Herkimer County and that he “intentionally and improperly” induced the county to lay Presta off from her position.
“This is a lawsuit in which we are seeking to redress the harm that has been visited upon Miss Presta,” said Robert Beebe, Presta’s attorney.
The lawsuit seeks to find Presta’s termination from her position with the Herkimer County Real Property Tax Service was “improper” and that Gressler “maliciously and intentionally” interfered with Presta’s contractual rights and “intentionally and maliciously” brought harm to her. The lawsuit filed on Aug. 20 also seeks to restore Presta to her former position with the county, award salary and benefits lost as a result of the defendants’ actions and impose punitive damages against Gressler.
County Attorney Robert Malone said he generally does not comment on litigation.
“Our procedure is to refer to our insurance carrier, and they will handle it appropriately,” he said Friday.
City Attorney Jennifer Chrisman could not immediately be reached.
According to the lawsuit, Presta, while performing the annual assessment roll for filing, determined three properties owned by the Little Falls Family YMCA - emergency and income housing at 43 Furnace St. and 544 Garden St. and a community co-op at 589 Albany St. that provides natural and specialty foods at discounted prices - did not qualify for the tax exemption they had been receiving pursuant to Real Property Tax Law and entered the properties on the taxable portion of the 2012 assessment roll.
The lawsuit says on May 22, 2012, the date of the grievance day meeting with the city’s Board of Assessment Review, Gressler contacted Presta, former city Attorney Edward Rose, Mayor Robert Peters and board members and argued Presta’s determinations be reversed and threatened to have her removed from her position with the county.
The lawsuit says in a letter dated June 5, 2012, Gressler urged the city’s Common Council to intercede on behalf of the YMCA and impliedly threatened Presta with the loss of her job.
In the letter Gressler says he was “stunned” when he learned “… our city assessor had initiated the process of removing four (later three) parcels of YMCA properties from tax exempt status. My first thought was why was this done? My second thought was this initiation of process was well intended but ultimately ill conceived and self-defeating.
Page 2 of 4 - “Our tax assessor has the best of Little Falls in mind, the goal of increasing city property tax revenue at a time of near budget crisis. Taking a fresh look at all tax-exempt properties in Little Falls may yield additional tax revenues. That being said, caution, good judgment and a thorough understanding of how our community functions needs to be at the forefront of such decision-making. In my estimation, the reclassification of the YMCA properties in question fails this test.”
Gressler’s letter continues “… The fact that the Common Council was left out of this decision making process is troubling. To my mind, being told that we ‘have no role in this matter’ doesn’t cut it. It would seem that the function of the city tax assessor and city attorney, both city employees, is of keen interest to the Common Council, if for no other reason than we are responsible for their contracts of employment. Presumably, the Common Council would have to decide whether or not to approve the payment of any legal fees arising from litigation connected to this matter.”
Gressler also wrote “ … To me, the critical question is whether or not we are going to be better off for having undertaken this legal process. If the city ‘is successful’ what do we really gain? Approximately $6,700 in extra property tax revenue. What do we put in jeopardy? A century of good relations between the YMCA and city government and the partnership that produces so much good for our community.
“Apparently, the YMCA’s Board of Directors authorized their executive director to seek compromise on this matter. Quite recently they were prepared to make annual good faith payments of $6,000 to the city to maintain their tax-exempt status for the three parcels in question. They also requested a one year ‘grace period’ during which time they could alter their emergency housing policy to better comply with tax exempt guidelines. Apparently, neither offer was accepted. … Whatever the outcome of these legal proceedings the persons responsible for initiating this process must be willing, for better or worse, to accept full consequence for their actions. They have decided to take these actions and they must ultimately bear full responsibility for the outcome.”
The lawsuit says in a letter dated June 19, 2012, Presta responded to Gressler’s letter and defended her determination. In the letter Presta alleges Gressler of having a conflict of interest and threatening her with the loss of her county position.
Presta wrote, “… It is important for you to understand that the mayor and city attorney had absolutely no bearing on my decision and were not involved in any way. Mr. Gressler accused the mayor and city attorney of being involved in my decision and I was appalled as to how disrespectful he has been to both of them. …I can’t comprehend how Mr. Gressler thinks he has the right to come up with such nonsense as well as false accusations not only wasting my time, but also the city officials. It needs to be made clear to Mr. Gressler that the only one that can reverse my decision is the Supreme Court.”
Page 3 of 4 - Presta also wrote, “… Mr. Gressler has accused me of intentionally targeting the YMCA and him saying that I did not include the Common Council members in my decision is an uneducated statement due his lack of knowledge of Real Property Tax Law that supports the assessor in any decision that is made and that no local legislative body has the authority to reverse an assessor’s decision.
“I was appalled when several hours before Grievance Day, May 22, 2012, Mr. Gressler contacted and spoke to some of the Board of Assessment Review members and tried to influence them on the decision they would be making that afternoon and also threatened my employment could be terminated over this. … I gave Mr. Gressler the courtesy to sit down and answer any questions he had. When I realized this conversation was not going in a good direction, I was beginning to feel pressured, harassed and intimated. I felt like I was being backed into a corner. As a Common Council member he acted in an unethical manner and is not abiding by New York State General Municipal Law (Article 18) for city of officials. This is a clear conflict of interest. I told Mr. Gressler that is conversation should not even be happening, given that his wife is on the board of directors of the YMCA and that he was also employed in the past by the YMCA at the Co-Op. He pressured me over and over to take a $6,000 payment that was offered to the city and I explained to him there is no deal making with Real Property Tax Law. … This lasted approximately 45 minutes. When Mr. Gressler was leaving he said something to the effect of ‘Just keep one thing in mind, that this will be a big expense if this goes to Supreme Court and if you lose then you will have to face the consequences and it would be a shame if you lost your county job over this.’”
The YMCA filed a lawsuit against the city, which was dismissed in May 2013 after the city and YMCA reached an agreement on a stipulation of discontinuance.
During this time, Presta was laid off by the county - with which the city had a contract for assessor services. The city voided the contract with the county, and hired Presta as a part-time assessor, which annualized to less than half the salary she had received as a county employee and with no benefits.
The lawsuit alleges Gressler contacted Wallace and members of the Legislature and urged them to dismiss Presta from her position.
The complaint also alleges Gressler knew of the contract between the city and the county, and that his interference damaged Presta financially.
Gressler did not return a request for comment on Monday.
Page 4 of 4 - CONTRIBUTING: GateHouse New York reporter Amanda Fries