The assessor who spearheaded an investigation into the use of three properties owned by the Little Falls Family YMCA and was recently laid off from the Herkimer County Real Property Tax Service has been appointed as the assessor for the city of Little Falls.
Mayor Robert Peters voted to break a 4 - 4 tie Tuesday evening on a resolution to cancel an agreement with the county for assessor services and hire Joy Presta as part-time city assessor.
Alderpersons Jeffrey Gressler, Patricia Long, Ronald Petrie and Mark Ruffing cast the no votes.
Some of the 90 people who turned out for Tuesday evening’s Common Council meeting, including at least 40 people who spilled out of the council chambers, called Presta’s appointment into question.
“The city’s actions come at a time when the YMCA is in desperate need of every dollar it can raise to continue to function. All of the YMCA’s programs are done on a shoestring. The YMCA for many years has been forced to layoff, consolidate, merge services, share management and to be resourceful in maintaining its equipment and facilities. We rely on volunteers. The financial hit on the YMCA if it is forced to pay property taxes would threaten its ability to continue to operate,” said Bart Carrig, a member of the YMCA Board of Directors. “There is no more logical justification for the city to tax the YMCA’s properties than there is for the city to tax itself for the municipal golf course. The YMCA has served the city of Little Falls for more than 100 years. If the taxes are assessed, the YMCA’s ability to offer programs and services to the city and its residents will be seriously harmed.”
The YMCA owned properties in question are emergency and low-income housing at 43 Furnace and 544 Garden streets, and the Community Co-op which provides natural and specialty foods at discount prices at 589 Albany St. Presta determined the properties should be returned to the tax roll because they are not being used solely for charitable use. In November 2012, Oneida County Supreme Court Judge Norman Seigel determined a lawsuit over Presta’s determination should proceed.
“This appointment is bad policy and could potentially set a dangerous precedent when it comes time to fill other positions,” said Gressler, who argued if the city wanted to appoint an assessor it should advertise the position, collect resumes and interview candidates in an effort to hire the most qualified person for the job. “Standard hiring practices did not take place here. Instead the council is being asked to steamroll this through and to rubber stamp an appointment. It’s simply bad policy.”
A petition was circulated Friday though Tuesday, collecting 554 signatures, including 336 with Little Falls addresses, in support of the city terminating the lawsuit against the YMCA immediately.
Page 2 of 2 - The Friends of the Little Falls Family YMCA also paid for a full-page advertisement that appeared in Monday’s edition of The Times urging city residents to contact City Hall about the matter.
“Like more than 900 YMCA associations nationwide, the Little Falls Family YMCA is recognized by the IRS as a charitable, tax-exempt 501 (c)(3) organization. This same status has been accorded to YMCAs for more than 160 years by local courts, taxing agencies, state legislatures, the U.S. Congress and generations of donors. The Little Falls Family YMCA completely disagrees with the city assessor’s interpretation of our organization’s purpose and programs, and will continue to fight for the tax exemption we earn every day in service to the community,” Little Falls Family YMCA Executive Director Anthony DeLuca said in a statement that accompanied the petitions.
Peters said the appointment of a city assessor and the lawsuit are separate matters.
“The litigation the city is involved in with the YMCA is separate from this. It’s a separate matter. This appointment is about filling a position with a person who has served this city well for nine years and has the support of many residents who have nothing but positives to say about her,” he said. “This appointment is about hiring someone ourselves who is familiar with the city of Little Falls and has built relationships with our city residents, especially with our senior citizens, rather than having Herkimer County appoint or name someone to serve as the Little Falls city assessor.”
Presta was hired to provide assessment and data collection services to the city for 14 hours a week.
The city’s contract with the county Real Property Tax Service for assessment services cost about $22,000 annually. The hiring of a city assessor is expected to save $6,000 per year, said Peters.
“I have to vote how the people tell me, and the majority of the people who called me said they were in favor of the city hiring an assessor,” said Second Ward Alderperson Betty Deming. “Ever since that ad has been in the paper my phone has been ringing, and the people I talked to, especially the seniors I talked to, said Joy Presta did an outstanding job as assessor. That’s why I had to vote to hire her.”
City Attorney Edward Rose said the next court date for the lawsuit between the city of Little Falls and the Little Falls Family YMCA is Feb. 28.
Contributing: GateHouse News Service