Berlin Lumber Files Tax Case Against Berlin
by Kieron Kramer
About halfway through the Town of Berlin regular meeting on Thursday, August 13, the Board voted to go into executive session to discuss “a legal matter.” When they emerged 17 minutes later they voted unanimously to hire the Pattison, Sampson, Ginsberg & Griffin Law Firm of Troy to handle a tax certiorari suit that had been filed against the Town. A tax certiorari case is when a property owner sues the municipality to reduce the property taxes it is being charged by that municipality. Town Supervisor Robert Jaeger declined to answer who was bringing suit when asked after the meeting. “I was advised by our legal counsel [Town Attorney Don Tate] not to reveal the name, and I am going to follow his advice.”
One question that comes to mind is – Do town attorneys play fast and loose with the open government laws of the State of New York to protect their clients whom they presume are the public officials or are they just ignorant of the law? The Town’s strategy or tactics in a legal case must be discussed in executive session because revealing the tactics might damage the Town. But the fact that there is a lawsuit against the Town is a matter of public record. After all the Town knows it is being sued and by whom, and the complainant knows they are suing the Town, so what harm is there in attaching a name? The big question is – do the people of Berlin have the right to know who is suing them? For it is the people who are being sued. If the complainant wins a tax certiorari case the property tax base goes down and the tax rates go up. Transparency in government, anyone?
A quick search on the internet revealed that Berlin Lumber Company is filing the tax certiorari case against the Town of Berlin.
Jaeger did announce that the Board visited Berlin Lumber on July 23 to evaluate its potential as a future municipal center for the Town. Whenever private property is purchased by a town that property comes off the tax rolls. Jaeger had suggested at last month’s Board meeting that Berlin Lumber might request a reduction in its property tax assessment because it is no longer doing business. He even raised the possibility that Berlin Lumber might raze the structures on the property in order to reduce its property tax liability. His point was that if the Town purchased the property it would not lose too much off the tax roll. At this meeting he said that the Town Assessors still have to calculate the cost to the Town of the lost property tax revenue from Berlin Lumber if it is purchased by the Town.
Jaeger had suggested to Board members on July 23 when they visited the Berlin Lumber site that an open house be scheduled at which information on the proposed municipal center would be distributed to the public. He said at this meeting that the rest of the Board felt that more data was needed before scheduling an open house. Jaeger also mentioned that he had been approached by a party interested in renting the Town Highway Garage should the move to the Berlin Lumber site come to fruition.
At the end of the meeting Pamula Gerstel made a lengthy statement about the Taconic Valley Soccer Club, which she has run for 23 years, and its commitment to providing the youth of Berlin with a place to play soccer. The upshot was that more soccer fields than the one at Berlin Elementary School are needed and that the Club would contribute to developing a field at the Berlin Lumber site if the Town were to buy it and use part of the property as a town park. The Club would be willing to maintain the field as well since it already has taken the responsibility of maintaining the Berlin Elementary School field for years.
Polling Place Appraisal
The appraisal of the Cherry Plain Polling Place by Cindy Brewster is virtually complete, and the appraisal amount seemed to touch a nerve. Brewster compared the property to five others in the valley and came up with a value of $59,000. Jaeger said that he had told Brewster that there was a well at the site, which there isn’t. So, he figures the final appraisal will be closer to $50,000. The structure sits on a half acre. This led Richard Von Schilgen to say, “I can’t believe that property is worth $50,000; it’s an exorbitant figure.” Others in the audience shared that opinion. However, the appraisal value is not the same as the selling price. On the appraisal form submitted by Brewster the comparable lots, appraised between $51,800 and $67,000 sold for somewhere in the low to mid-$30,000 range. The appraisal serves to provide the Board with an objective figure to use in deciding the asking price. Nevertheless, Jaeger said he “would go back over” the appraisal with Brewster.
Two Bids Accepted
The Town Board accepted two proposals at this meeting, one for the installation of two new sub-panels, new grounded outlets and five fluorescent, energy saving lights at the Watipi Building and one for the replacement of 275 feet of sidewalk on South Main Street running from the Sweeners’ residence up to Anne Maxon’s driveway.
The sidewalk work was awarded to CWG Excavating and Timbering of Greene’s Brook Road in Berlin, the same company that replaced the sidewalk last year on Elm Street and Community Avenue near Hewitt’s Market. The old sidewalk will be removed and carted away by the Highway Department which will also provide graded fill. CWG will install the 275 feet of sidewalk with 4 inch thick, 4000 psi rated concrete on welded wire mesh, six inches thick at driveways. The sidewalk will be seal coated and all materials guaranteed. The cost will be $9,500. R.M Bacon Construction of Hoosick offered to do the job for $11,550.
Board Member Sheila Hewitt offered the resolution to accept CWG. She said, “Chad [Gerstel] is the lowest bid; he did a good job last year, and he stood by his work.” She was referring to the rapid disintegration of the sidewalk after it was installed last year due to defective concrete delivered by Bonded Concrete and CWG’s repouring of the concrete. The Board voted unanimously to have CWG do the work.
Three bids to do the electrical work in the Watipi Building were received by the Board. Zeeg’s Electric from Petersburgh bid $2,570, MK Electric from Stephentown bid $2,998.23 and Gable electric from Pittsfield, MA, bid $3,600. The Board voted unanimously to award the contract to MK Electric even though Zeeg’s proposal would cost about $430 less. Hewitt said, “The bid is a little over with MK, but I know it will get done quickly.” Board Member George Shuhart also said he liked MK Electric. Jaeger liked MK because they will run new cable from the service panel in the furnace room to the sub-panels at the other end of the building. The work will have to meet NYS code and will be inspected by Berlin Building Inspector Allen Yerton.
Carpeting In Town Hall
Supervisor Jaeger also announced that the new carpeting will be installed in the Town Hall on Monday and Tuesday, August 17 and 18. They have to finish by Wednesday, he said, because that is Court night when the County DA appears to prosecute cases. The carpeting company, Green Mountain Commercial Flooring of Bennington, will move the furniture around as the carpet is laid down so there will be no need to move anything outside while the work is being done. The new carpet has a speckled blue pattern with a more durable section used inside the front entrance for use as a door mat. The Town Hall bathrooms and closets had linoleum installed last week.
Town Justice Joe Rechen received a grant from the NYS Unified Court System for the carpeting installation. He also received money for new chairs in an effort to make the Berlin Court in compliance with Justice Court standards. The new chairs will have cushioned seats and are attached in groups of three. This is to make it less possible for angry participants in Court proceedings to throw a chair at a justice or a lawyer. Rechen is also applying for a grant from the Court System to replace the windows in the Town Hall with energy efficient windows. Jaeger said that in keeping in the character of the building the new windows would be the same size and have the same size transom over them. The window replacement is expected to cost a little less than $10,000. The Board passed a resolution supporting Rechen’s grant application, as required by the grant process. The Board also passed a resolution required by the Unified Court System stipulating that the Board had completed the audit of the Justice Fund. The audit was completed in January, and the resolution stating that will be sent to the Court System.
Kent Goodermote suggested that the Town “hire Joe Rechen for grant writer for the Town because the other one is not doing much.” Jaeger replied, “Joe and Walter [Knightes, the other Town Justice] wouldn’t want to deviate from their job that they take so seriously.”
Youth Commission Needs A Benefactor
Tammy Osterhout reported that the Berlin Youth Commission summer arts and recreation program is over. On average, twenty children per day participated in the program at the Watipi Building. The swimming program had 68 kids but the Hoosick Pool didn’t have enough instructors for the older kids, she said. Osterhout said that she is looking for a different type of pool and location because the Hoosick Pool is raising its rates to $50 per child. A Halloween party will be held again this year.
Last year the Youth Commission was able to sponsor 43 kids to go to the Schaghticoke Fair because a generous Berliner donated the part of the ticket price. This year the Youth Commission does not have the money to sponsor kids to the Fair. The cost of an all day pass at the Fair costs $18 per kid, Osterhout said.
At the suggestion of the Town’s insurance agent, a “workplace violence” poster will be placed in Town buildings. The insurance agent supplied the text of the poster which describes the process of filing a complaint. Eagle-eyed Board Member Carl Greene suggested some of the references to “the company” be changed to “the town.” In Berlin the Town Supervisor will be the recipient of the complaints, so Jaeger said that the Supervisor’s name on the poster should be kept up to date. Any violence should be reported whether it is a Town official on a resident, a Town official on another official, a resident on an official or resident on resident. The Board voted unanimously to place the posters.
Highway Superintendent Jim Winn reported that the Highway Department had been fixing roads, “rocking ditches and straightening stuff up,” but everything was put on hold when the recent flooding hit southern Rensselaer County. “Berlin wasn’t hit as bad as Stephentown,” he said. Mattison Hollow Road, George Allen Hollow Road, Rastus Road, Cherry Plain Hill Road and Cowdry Hollow Road suffered the most, he said. “The pipes washed out; they just couldn’t hold the water.” Winn reported that some culvert pipes were plugged by debris – one on Mattison Hollow by a tree. Winn will replace a culvert on Mattison Hollow this week.
At their workshop meeting on July 23 in the Watipi Building the Board discussed putting the Water District #2 metering system into the five year plan and will start looking for grant money, Jaeger reported. He expects the meter salesman to attend a meeting so that the cost can be nailed down. The purchase of the huge culvert to replace the bridge on Southeast Hollow Road was also discussed. A 14’ x 9’ culvert, 50 feet long, was suggested. It would cost $21,000. Winn is still waiting on the purchase because the County Engineer has not approved the proposed specifications for the culvert.
• Both water Districts are quiet.
• Dog Control Officer Doug Goodermote reported that dog problems on Airport Road “won’t go away” but the problem of dog defecation on the Watipi Building lawns has been “taken care of.”
• Building Inspector Allen Yerton reported that three building permits had been issued this month with the cell tower on Satterlee Hollow Road being the most important. Jaeger said that construction usually starts 30 days after the permit is issued and takes about another 30 days to complete.
• Vic Lewin of the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) reported that a variance had been issued to the Stephens family who wanted to keep 2/10 of an acre that abuts the Berlin Community Cemetery. Their relatives are buried there, he said, including some of the earliest settlers of Berlin. Access will be from Route 22 or the Berlin Cemetery. Lewin expects Mariner Tower to make a formal application for the cell tower proposed in Cherry Plain at the next ZBA meeting.
• For the Planning Board, Chairwoman Pamula Gerstel reported that the Stephens’ small cemetery subdivision had been approved. It has very old stones and is well maintained, she said. The only stipulation is that the family continue maintenance. The Planning Board also approved the cave subdivision on the Robert and Ellie Bentley land since a full right of way for access was given. Gerstel has a copy of the history of the cave which she will turn over to the Town Historian.
• Tara Cinney reported that the Comprehensive Plan Committee is sponsoring a presentation on September 16 at 7 pm in the Berlin High School auditorium. It will be a look back at Berlin’s history led by Sharon Klein, she said. The results of the survey that was sent out in the spring of 2008 has been posted on the Library website.
• Reporting on the Little Hoosic Watershed Association, Carl Greene reported that the Association has been approved as a 501c3 entity. He also said that US Fish & Wildlife is still targeting the Bentley project on the river for this fall before the permit runs out.
• Joe Rechen will give NIMS (National Incident Management System) classes starting around September 10. The classes will be for the 100, 200 and 700 level courses. Supervisor Jaeger said that these three courses would be good for the Board members to take.
• Ivan Wager reported that the lid of a transfer station container broke off when it was being dumped in Albany. The container was brought back to the transfer station, and the lid and stop were welded back on for $845. Also, Wager will begin negotiations for next year’s waste hauling contract.
• Head of Assessors Nancy Sweener said that the assessors had begun their field work so that improvements can be added to the tax list.
• Carl Greene passed out copies of the procurement policy printed in the back of the New York Association of Towns Handbook to the Board for their consideration. “It is much clearer than what we operate with now,” he said.
• Jaeger asked the Board if there was interest in developing a Town website. “That way we wouldn’t have to rely on the Library to electronically post stuff,” he said. He estimated that the website would cost $1,500 to get started.
• Bob Rubin, who lives at the end of Mattison Hollow Road, thanked Jim Winn and the Highway Department for their work to keep the road passable after the flooding.
• Supervisor Jaeger announced that he “wants budget input by September 21.”
• Board Member Jim Saunders said that “the flowers look great.” He was referring to the beds of gladioli that are adorning the roads of Berlin and which are blossoming now.