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Ancram board members squabble over assessment list notes

ANCRAM–With a wild political season in full swing and an overflow crowd in attendance, uproar ensued at the September 17 Town Board meeting over revelations in a letter from one candidate that two of his opponents had devised a not-so-secret secret property assessment analysis.

Town Councilman Bob Mayhew and Councilwoman Donna Hoyt, who were allegedly responsible for the secret analysis, denied its existence, as did Town Supervisor Thomas Dias.

The accusatory letter was written to the supervisor by Christopher Thomas, a Republican candidate for councilman and a member of the town’s Board of Assessment Review.

In the letter, Mr. Thomas alleged that Councilman Mayhew, a Democratic candidate for re-election, and Councilwoman Hoyt, a Democrat, who is running for re-election on the Republican line, tried to fire Town Assessor Kenneth Leggett and “presented to the Town Board a secret review and analysis of everyone’s property tax assessments, based on a formula different than the one used by NY State certified assessors.”

The letter said that in their review, Mr. Mayhew and Mrs. Hoyt “identified 77 properties owned by 21 taxpayers for whom they seem to be proposing property tax assessment increases totaling $6.4 million.” Also identified in the review are “certain individuals’ properties” which Mr. Mayhew and Mrs. Hoyt have asked Mr. Leggett to investigate “based on their personal sense of property tax issues.”

Noting that the town attorney had cautioned Mr. Mayhew and Mrs. Hoyt against “meddling with property tax assessments” at the June Town Board meeting because assessments are not the Town Board’s responsibility, Mr. Thomas said in his letter that he found the situation especially troubling because Mr. Mayhew and Mrs. Hoyt are in the midst of “their own personal tax grievance lawsuits against the town to have their own assessments lowered.”

Saying that the letter, which had made its way to hundreds of residents via email, had stirred up “a lot of churn,” Supervisor Dias noted that Mrs. Hoyt and Mr. Mayhew have the right, like any other Ancram citizens, to grieve their assessments and they do not lose that right due to their positions on the Town Board. He also said that they have recused themselves in all matters relating to the town assessor.

Mr. Dias said that no one is trying to fire the assessor, no one is suing the town, the Town Board has no control over assessments and there was no secret review.

But if there was no secret review, Councilman James Miller asked, “What’s this?” as he held up a thick loose-leaf binder.

Information about the binder and its contents was revealed as Councilman Mayhew and Councilwoman Hoyt delivered their responses to the Thomas letter.     

Mrs. Hoyt said that she had gone through the 2009 tax assessment roll, contained in the binder, found each property price, divided it by the number of acres and came up with a per acre price. She said she compared similar properties and shared her findings with her fellow Town Board members because she “wanted the board to see what I saw.”

Mrs. Hoyt said, some property owners are “overpaying on one piece of land and underpaying on another. Every piece with a house on it is over assessed…The taxes in this town are horrendous and unfair” and that she is “in the middle of grieving my own [assessment] because I can’t afford my tax bills.”

The councilwoman said she did the analysis because her successful election campaign last year was based on a pledge to investigate the town’s inconsistent assessments.

She also wanted to compile evidence to support the spending of between $100,000 and $120,000 in taxpayer dollars on another revaluation if she found it to be warranted. The town just conducted a reval in 2008.

Mr. Mayhew chalked the Thomas letter up to “politics in Ancram,” which he said, “have become a public forum for character assassination and petty rivalries to be aired… friends and neighbors… get out the biggest knives they own to stab each other in the back.”

The binder in question that was distributed to Town Board members contained a copy of the town’s assessment rolls with notes made in the margin about assessments considered inconsistent by Mrs. Hoyt, said Mr. Mayhew, noting that no one was targeted and that the assessment roll is public record.

“Much damage has been done to my good name and reputation and all of it is based on lies,” said Mr. Mayhew.

At one point Mr. Mayhew noted that some of the information in the Thomas letter had been discussed in executive session and wondered how it became public.

Councilman Miller announced that he had shown both Mr. Leggett and Mr. Thomas the annotated assessment roll because he thought Mr. Thomas should see that a star had been placed next to his property. Then directing his remarks to Mrs. Hoyt, Councilman Miller said he thought Mr. Leggett might be able help him understand the assessments because “I am not a self-appointed expert like you.”

“Oh but you are a self-appointed expert on the Comprehensive Plan aren’t you?” quipped Mrs. Hoyt, referring to Mr. Miller’s call earlier in the meeting for board approval of the now completed plan. Mrs. Hoyt was among the majority of board members who said they had not finished reviewing the plan and were not ready to vote on whether to approve it.

Following her remark, Mr. Miller tossed the loose-leaf binder  to the floor in front of the audience.

Former councilman Jack Lindsey spoke from the audience during the public comment portion of the meeting in praise of Mr. Leggett and his responsiveness to correct the situation when Mr. Lindsey found he had been over assessed for an apartment that did not exist in his barn. Mr. Lindsey also said he was aware of people who were on Mrs. Hoyt’s investigation list who had been visited by the assessor. Mrs. Hoyt said she had not given the list to anyone and the list had no names on it.

Mr. Lindsey suggested that to avoid the appearance of any impropriety, Mrs. Hoyt should wait to do her assessment investigation until she is not on the Town Board.

Resident Mike Citrin pointed out that since the Town Board has no say in the matter of assessments and was advised of that by the town attorney, perhaps the board’s time would be better spent on other matters–like reading the Comprehensive Plan.

When Supervisor Dias cut off public comment at about 8:30 p.m., motioning to go into executive session to discuss a personnel matter, objections were heard from the audience and someone yelled out, “You lie.”

Resident Adrienne Citrin left her seat in the audience, picked up the loose-leaf notebook and passed it to a resident who was interested to see what notes were made about a relative’s property.

A number of properties, all of them horse farms, one of them owned by Democratic supervisor candidate Art Bassin, appeared on a handwritten list in the front of the binder with a notation to check on their exemptions.

To contact Diane Valden email .

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