The Little Falls Common Council voted Tuesday evening to terminate the services of the attorney for the city in the litigation with the Little Falls Family YMCA and to appoint new counsel to resolve the lawsuit that questions whether three YMCA-owned properties should be tax exempt.
The council unanimously agreed last month to return the properties — 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 discount prices — to tax-exempt status. The agreement also stipulates returning funds to the YMCA that have been paid since the properties were placed on the tax rolls and ensures no costs to either party.
The deal binds the city for the next three years.
Prior to his retirement as city attorney on March 15, Edward Rose was asked to conclude the litigation and drafted a stipulation of discontinuance incorporating the terms that had been agreed upon by the council and mayor. An April 2 letter to the mayor and Common Council from Rose said the YMCA's attorneys have not agreed upon the stipulation.
Bart Carrig, a member of the Little Falls Family YMCA's Board of Directors, said Tuesday evening the reason is that the details of the stipulation are yet to be resolved.
“The YMCA agreed to the stipulations that were agreed upon by the mayor and council. The stipulations are not in question, just the minute details and wording of items like how the change in tax status will be recorded and how the funds will be returned,” he said.
The resolution passed by a 7 - 1 vote Tuesday evening terminated the services of attorney Armond Festine, who previously expressed in writing his desire to withdraw from representation of the city, and has made an application to the court to do so, and appointed attorney Nicholas Macri to complete the stipulation of discontinuance.
“The Common Council is of the opinion further delays in concluding the litigation do not serve in the best interest of the city,” said First Ward Alderman Jeffrey Gressler.
He added he felt the resolution was the “logical next step” in a process that over the past three months has included multiple public sessions at which public comments have been received concerning the issue. Also during this time Gressler said the Common Council has passed resolutions recognizing the YMCA's programs and services at its properties to be “consistent with its charitable purposes,” expressing the council's desire to end the litigation and directing the city's attorney to file a stipulation of discontinuance.
“With the attorney for the city notifying the court he no longer wishes to represent the city in this matter, and with the city attorney now retired, it is imperative that the city hire an attorney to complete and file the stipulation,” said Gressler. “This resolution is an important and final step to finally get this matter with the YMCA behind us.”
Page 2 of 2 - Mayor Robert Peters originally vetoed the resolution, but later reversed his decision.
“I did not know the full details of this resolution until tonight, but I, too, would like to put this issue behind us,” he said Tuesday evening, citing a court proceeding scheduled to take place later this month as his reasoning for reversing his veto.
The letter from Rose to Peters and the Common Council said the next step in the litigation is a Supreme Court proceeding that will take place on April 25. On that date, Rose said the city and the YMCA would have to appear before the court, adding Festine would seek withdrawal from the case as the city's counsel in the matter at that time.
He added the April 25 proceeding is not a trail date.
Peters, Common Council President Mark Ruffing, Macri and YMCA attorney Kathleen Bennett, of Bond, Schoeneck and King law office in Syracuse, will meet to finalize the stipulation of discontinuance. Once it is finalized and signed by both parties, the stipulation will be submitted to Oneida County Supreme Court Judge Norman Seigel for his review. If the stipulation is accepted, the April 25 proceeding could be canceled.
The resolution that was passed Tuesday evening said Macri would be paid at a rate of $215 an hour to complete the stipulation, the same rate paid to Festine.
Peters later clarified the appointment of an attorney was the reason for his veto.
“My original objection was that the resolution appoints an attorney and establishes a rate of pay without input from all members of the council,” he said.
Second Ward Alderman David Burleson cast the lone no vote.
In other business Tuesday evening, the Common Council unanimously approved the 2013 - 2014 city budget. The budget includes $5,907,643 in general fund appropriations, incorporates the use of $125,000 in unappropriated fund balance, anticipates $2,784,275 in revenues and calls for $3,023,238 to be raised by property taxes. The new tax rate is $95.02 per thousand of assessed valuation, a 3.1 percent increase from 2012 - 2013.
Marry Ellen Krisch was appointed to the Little Falls Urban Renewal Agency Board of Directors by a 5 - 3 vote. Aldermen Gressler, Petrie and Ruffing cast the no votes.
The council unanimously approved the Little Falls Board of Public Works’ recommendation that the water and sewer rates for 2013 remain at their 2012 levels.
The Common Council unanimously approved a request from C.A.R.E. (Community Advocates for Revitalization Efforts) to place a sign on the recreation trail to promote the city and its features to tourists. The sign will be placed at no cost to the city.