Saturday, January 29, 2011

public hearing

Here is the audio of the last hearing. There is another one at the end of Februrary so stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

mediation of neighbor to neighbor disputes

If you are new to this blog do not start with this entry. Go to the big news at the beginning: problems in assessments and contractor invoices.

If there is a neighbor to neighbor component to my experience with the town of Stuyvesant, and I'm not sure there is, my experience proves conclusively that PUNISHMENT and ENFORCEMENT are not productive.

At the town board meeting in January, I sent a letter to Valerie Bertram that she read out in the correspondence section. Here is the letter in full. Here is the audio of the letter read at the meeting.

"... after an enforcement action, or non-action, the loser doesn't disappear from the face of the earth: they will still be neighbors..."

I proposed that all neighbor to neighbor disputes be sent to mediation first. Following the meeting there was some discussion of the issue on the Stuyvesant Forum, a Yahoo group on local concerns. Following that discussion, we seemed to see that there may be state grant money available for mediation. Here is a brochure about available resources.

I wrote a letter to the local agency listed on the state site, Common Ground. Hopefully someone can come and talk to the town at the next board meeting about the potential for neighbors to attempt to resolve their differences through mediation rather than turning immediately to enforcement and punishment.

Other towns have done this with these kinds of complaints. Here is an article from Arizona.

I'm all for it.

no million dollar garage

As I pointed out in the first entries on this blog, there are open questions about the financial integrity of town government having to do with contractor invoices and assessments. These two issue ought to make us wonder if the taxpayers should be giving even more money to this government. No way they should have more money to throw around when they can't explain what they did with the money we already gave them.

The 2009 re-assessment through GAR was a huge tax increased disguised as a re-evaluation. The town got 9% more in taxes the subsequent year. That 9% increase followed a 3% increase the previous year. Meanwhile, many of the excessive number of positions held by town officers pay over 70 dollars an hour.

The government of the town of Stuyvesant proposes to spend $890,000 to expand and renovate the current garage and build two new salt sheds. 

It is the biggest capital project in the history of this town.  Here is some of the audio with me bringing up the idea of a referendum at the public meeting on the project.

The town would like to use money from the settlement between GE and New York State for this project but that would violate the expressed intent of the 1995 settlement

If we get a referendum on this together, the citizens of the town can nix the bond issue they need to build this thing. I plan on making that referendum happen.

This project is very bad idea. Why?

1. It’s dumb.

Stuyvesant is a town of 2,000 people with 25 miles of road to maintain. In this town the state and county maintain 29 miles of road. That is three sets of highway departments coming and out of town maintaining road, picking up the plow and driving over someone else’s unplowed road, then putting the plow back down when they get back on their own road. Same with cutting the grass. Same when our trucks drive through Ghent or Kinderhook or Stockport or when their trucks drive through Stuyveasnt. This is really stupid.

Instead of locking us into this bizarre world of duplicated services forever, why not study consolidation and outsourcing? Instead of expanding the garage to have more trucks, the highway department should be selling off its vehicles and outsourcing or consolidating with other entities.

Some day someone or something is going to force this to change. When sanity and economies of scale come into government and road maintenance we will be left with a useless ugly salt shed we never needed and an ugly garage that we should have sold off to a private entity.

And when common sense finally breaks into New York State government we’ll still be paying the debt on these white elephants salt shed we don’t need to stand there and look ugly reminding us how stupid we were (or the town government was).

We have some good potential capital projects in town: bike paths, fixing broken bridges, expanding waterfront access, etc. This dumb salt shed is the stupidest possible capital project the town could have come up with.

2. If we don’t need one highway facility, and we don’t, we certainly don’t need two.

It’s bad enough that the town of Stuyvesant has a highway department at all when this should be a county or state or town consortium function, but we really don’t need two highway garage sites.

We have one big one on Sharptown road and a small one on County Route 26A. The town proposes to build a big salt shed on Sharptown road to hold a lot of salt and leave enough salt for one storm at 26A.

Why do they need one storm’s worth of salt on 26A? Because, they say, the trucks and cars of the highway personnel cannot get in and out of Sharptown road in a storm. I would like some proof of that.

The real reason that they don’t want to put all the salt at Sharptown road may be that the supervisor of the town lives right near the Sharptown facility and doesn’t want the extra truck traffic. A significant percentage of the cost of this project is there to keep trucks away from the supervisor’s house.

Then, if we can truck the salt from Sharptown to 26A before each storm, why couldn’t we just truck the salt from the brand new salt shed on 9H before each storm and not have a big salt shed at all? That would save $440,000.

They want to make the garage at 26A bigger to have more trucks. Like I said, we should be finding ways to have fewer trucks. The garage we have is fine, if we need a garage at all, and we don’t. The roof doesn’t leak.

One or the other site should be sold off and more functions should be outsourced. We don’t need two facilities.

3. If we do need a salt shed, and we don’t, why do need a custom built one?

The salt shed on 9H is a prehab and cost 280,000. Our town proposes to build a custom one for 440,000. Either way, the salt shed will be ugly, useless and a waste of money. But what’s up with this custom construction deal?

The town guys will argue that a custom shed will last longer. I don’t know how they know that. And who cares how long it will last? We don’t even need it now.

The real reason they need a custom salt shed is the real reason this project even came into existence: to pay contractors. The whole thing is a basically a slush fund. The guys pushing this don’t know anyone who builds prefabs and the ability to play footsie with the invoices is more limited with a prefab.

4. Do town employees and elected officials really need all these palaces for themselves?

Why is it that the biggest capital project in the history of the town is to make a place that only officials and employees of the town will get to use? How about the second biggest project, the town hall: who mostly uses that? What about the citizens? Do we not get a capital project one day? How about a park? Or a trail? Or a bridge? We’ve got a broken bridge in town. How about painting the bridge over Stuyvesant Fall? How about some way for citizens to get their boats to the Hudson river? How about investing in the agro-tourism infrastructure of the town? What will happen when the lease on the town park in Stuyvesant Falls down by the waterfall expires: will we have the capital to buy the land or will the folks in the Falls lose that great spot by the water where there is that big no swimming sign?

What a waste. What a boondoogle. I say, send this sucker back to the drawing board. No million dollar garage.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

got a ticket today

This blog is not really about my problems. I strongly encourage new readers to check on the first two entries on this blog first: the real meat is at the beginning and puts everything else into stark relief.

Still, the attacks on me (both the ticket described below and the zoning enforcement fiasco described here) are the flip side of the financial irregularities reported in the first entries, involving assessments and contractor pay. I have zoning and criminal charge problems for the same reason the assessments and the budget are not clear, fair and transparent: disrespect for the rule of law.

It's unAmerican.

Here is a law they managed to dig up and claim applies to Stuyvesant.

Here is my appearance ticket.

First time in 40 years the law has been used, if it even is a law in this town.

The charge defies t...  apparently occurred ... but the ticket ... the video tape ... not seen...  did not observe ...  I'll hold out on the rest of that since I haven't been to court yet.

But still... Will I be next to be jailed on a dog charge by judge Bruno?

Zoning and Building Enforcement: More Mistakes?

In the first entry of this blog, we looked at attorney invoices. We saw that the town attorney has admitted mistakes. Valerie Bertram, supervisor, has to date taken no action in response to the problems in attorney billing nor addressed the missing 10,000 in the budget line for attorney fees. The mistakes do not appear to be mistakes.

In the second entry, we considered the assessor's office and found much of the same pattern. Again, the person responsible for this department has admitted mistakes that have serious consequences for the town budget. Again, the supervisor has taken no action. Again, the pattern of behavior on the part of the assessor with the aide of the attorney do not appear to suggest an innocent mistake, or a series of related mistakes.

Now we turn our attention to the zoning enforcement officer / building code enforcement officer Gerry Ennis (Gerald Ennis).

Let's start with a single piece of paper. This one. This is a document generated my Mr. Ennis himself.

Apparently written on July 1, 2010, Mr. Ennis claims he walks by my house 20 to 25 times per month at 5:30 AM in the morning. I spoke to Gerry in April 2010 and he said he had been by my house three times and heard no barking. Immediately after hanging up the phone, I wrote a letter to him, cc-ed to other town officials, that if my understanding of the phone call was incorrect, that he had not stated that he heard no barking the first three tries, he should write back. Following the April call he came one more time that I am sure of and he heard not one bark. The dog control officer also visited the property and heard no barking.

If he didn't hear anything the first five times, he figured he'd try 25 more times. Unless he's lying.

It would be pretty wrong for a public official working for the town government to write a lie down and submit it into official evidence as part of a campaign to close a man's business and ruin his ability to earn a living. In this case however, it might just be worse if he were telling the truth.

Maybe Gerry made a mistake.

And let's consider the hand written notes at the bottom of this same document: "On August 9, after not hearing from Mr. Pflaum @ his fence I issued his 3rd violation notice and revoked his home occ. permit."

A few points: 1) I spent 5,000 on the aforementioned fence and other sound proofing prior to Mr. Ennis beginning his need to get exercise on my driveway at 5:30 in the morning and here is the invoice; 2) I wrote to Mr. Ennis 4 times plus phone calls between the first and second notice of violations, that is I responded; 3) in those letters I offered to show Mr. Ennis 17 letters of support from the neighbors, including every single nearby neighbor, and video and scientific evidence that the barking produced by other neighbors is orders of magnitude louder and more frequent at any reasonable point of consideration than any noise that could be produced by my facility: Mr. Ennis showed no interest in looking at these materials; 4) Mr. Ennis does not have the authority to revoke a permit and the notices of violation also require the option of a jury trial to be valid: this was an unconstitutional act as you can read here.

The charge defies the laws of physics. Here and here. The enforcement defies the law and the constitution. Also, Gerry lied in order to ruin my business.

I built the fence.

I responded: letters on May 17, 2010,  May 11, 2010, May 3, 2010, and April 30, 2010. More phone calls.

He could not have heard barking in excess of a normal residence, even if did come at 5:30 in the morning, because that is impossible.

Here he goes.

And he invented at least one of the "complaints." Here is Gerry tampering with witnesses. You aren't supposed to tell the complaining person what the source of their problem is. Here is the other star witness for the prosecution.

Does anyone think something is fishy going on here? Gerry never issued building permits for as many as 14 residences on the boat club property and yet he has time to come by my house 25 times to listen to dogs that by the laws of physics cannot be loud?

To wit:

• Mr. Ennis did not follow procedure in terms of code enforcement and notice of violation, in that New York Zoning Law and Practice says that the notice of violation should be followed by a citation, which I would be able to contest in town court with a jury trial. Instead of allowing me due process, Mr. Ennis revoked my permit on his own. My due process rights were thus violated.

• Why is the dog control officer not involved?

• All of my near neighbors have written letters of support for my business or told me they would appear on my behalf in the process of fighting Mr. Ennis’s unfair campaign against me. Mr. Ennis did not look at these letters and supporting evidence when I wrote to him. Instead of taking me up on my offer to show him around my property and give him the letters of support and show him the videos I have in my possession, he came on the evening of May 10th at about 7 PM and stood on my porch without knocking on the door. When my wife finally opened the door anyway, when our dog barked, she told him I wasn’t home. He said, “I know” handed her an application to build a fence and left.

Valerie Bertram, supervisor, is fully informed and responded that "Gerry did nothing wrong." Nothing at all.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

shut 'em down

At the town meeting tonight Martin Roby asked about what appeared to be a double standard in the enforcement of easements. When councilman Ron Knott found a case where a citizen was not following his easement a few years ago, driving a motorbike around near Ron's house, the town took action based on Mr. Knott's complaint. When the town itself is not taking any action to protect their own easement, letting people drive snowmobiles in a town park, the board was reluctant to take any action against itself to put up some signs or something to show that snowmobiles are not allowed in the park.

A valid point. Worth noting at least. Different properties, different standards. Some people hear noise from a motor bike and the issue is addressed. Some people wonder about noise in a park and their issue is not addressed.

But then Tom Shanahan, head of the Republican Party in the town of Stuyvesant and member of the Planning Board and owner of a lobbying firm in Albany, interrupted Martin and wouldn't let him finish his point. Instead of stepping in to enforce the town rules allowing anyone to speak without interruption, board members told Martin to be quiet and shut down the meeting.

Here is the audio of the end of the meeting and parlay afterwards.

On a similar note, at my meeting with supervisor Valerie Bertram on Tuesday, Mr. Bertram said that I might not be allowed to speak or ask questions at meeting, that if she didn't like my questions she would shut the meeting down.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Property Assessments: Mistakes Were Made

... I made a mistake. Yet, somehow, I got the answer right ...

A quick boat club review before we get to the new stuff:

To review, in October, Martin Roby, open government activist, acquired a screen shot from the County Clerk's office and posted it on the Stuyvesant Forum, a Yahoo group devoted to local Stuyvesant issues. Here it is.

What Martin found was that a 31.4 acre parcel was 1) listed as two parcels although no subdivision ever occurred; 2) one listing was listed as a tax exempt State Park although the property is clearly operating as a private entity; 3) there are many houses on the listing for the boat club, ultimately some 25 homes, which have never gotten building permits and were not on the assessment; 4) the property is listed as a woodlot when it is a developed resort. At the end of this article, links are provided to demonstrate these problems.

The boat club has been paying taxes as a woodlot, paying the town of Stuyvesant $500 a year in taxes for many years. The assessment at the time Martin obtained the abstract was $340,000.

However, a Hudson river estate within about 2 hour drive of New York City, an isolated, private estate with a 25 houses, a marina, 31.4 acres and other improvements, surrounded by protected state land on three sides and the Hudson river on the other side, is certainly worth many millions of dollars. The town of Stuyvesant has been leaving up to $70,000 a year on the table, uncollected taxes due to the town if the assessment on this property had been fair.

This assessment was certified in July 2009 by Howard Gleason. He signed off on it following the GAR associates process.

The assessor Howard Gleason has since admitted that this listing was a mistake. Here is the interview he held with Lee Jamison in which he admits his mistake and outlines the steps he plans to take to get a more accurate assessment on this property.

If error is the problem, then we are talking about many interlocking mistakes. The property should not have been listed as a tax exempt state park. The construction of the houses should have involved building permits. The single property should not have two assessment listing. The assessment should have been much higher. The property is not a woodlot.

Did Howard make all these mistakes by himself?

If the multiple problems, consistently presenting a pattern of privilege and advantage are due to random error, Howard Gleason's actions are not logical. Mr. Gleason told Lee Jamison that he appreciates people who help him out pointing out mistakes and allowing him the chance to correct these errors. So far, Martin has not gotten a thank you card. Personally, Mr. Gleason seems to be working to raise my assessment and presented me with papers prior to a public meeting in an attempt to intimidate me so that I would not exercise my constitutional rights.

How does he thank people for finding and publicize these mistakes? By raising their taxes.

But if the problem is a mistake, why is Mr. Gleason, with the aide of Tal Rappleyea, working to so hard to show the original assessment of 340,000 is not entirely absurd? Mr. Gleason's job is to raise money for the town, not to work as the advocate for a single, privileged land owner.

In the Register Star article below, Tal and Howard argue that the value of the entire property, 25 houses, marina, pavillion and 31 acres, is only to be taxed at the marina rate. When speaking to Lee, Howard came up with comparable properties hundreds of miles away on Lake Ontario.

Meanwhile, the land right next to the boat club, the land that is actually owned by the state, is valued at 104,000 per acre. If that rate were applied to the boat club, it would be worth 3.2 million.

What did Howard come up with to compare this property too? I received this list of marina in New York State. The only property with more than 6 acres is this one in Ontario County, 4 hours and 19 minutes drive from Stuyvesant town hall. Here is the assessment from the county website.

The only property on the Hudson is this one, an abandoned lot in a high crime area: 2.72 acres sold in 2005 for 266,000 per acre.

What about Hudson New York. about 15 miles as the crow flies from the Hook Boat Club? Read this article. Right here in Columbia County a site on the Hudson is assessed at 4.5 million and the owners are objecting that 1.5 million is more appropriate.

Or how about Poughkeepsie Yacht Club? With 2 acres and one building, it is assessed at 1.7 million. Here is the card for that property.

How about any of the other boat clubs in the Mohawk yacht association?

WHOOPS! I made a little mistake. 

I, Will, the dog guy, pay more taxes on my house than the Hook Boat Club although I have a fraction of the land, only one house (not 25) and am not a marina on the Hudson River.

I pay more than them. And, while I write this, the assessor is trying to raise my taxes and figure out a way not to raise the taxes on the boat club.

It fricken outrageous.

The first entry on this blog was about attorney invoices. After months of FOILing and asking town supervisor Valerie Bertram to look into an apparent case of petty corruption or sloppy bookkeeping, after showing her that there is a 10,000 dollar discrepancy in 2009 attorney pay (invoices, ledger and budget produce different numbers), after getting no response and leadership from the supervisor, Martin raised the issue of attorney invoices at the town board meeting December 2010. The public discussion was followed by a summary on this blog.

Valerie Bertram has taken no action to address problems. Town attorney Tal Rappleyea admitted mistakes were made.

Those two elements also characterize issue of the Hook Boat Club assessment. As in the attorney invoice issue, a town employee, in this case the assessor Howard Gleason, has admitted he made mistakes. As in the attorney invoice issue, Valerie Bertram has been kept abreast of the situation and taken no action.

As in the case of the attorney invoices, the tax payer is getting the short end of the stick. The buck stops nowhere and employees have carte blanch to engage in what appear to be examples of blatant corruption and favoritism.

Here is my letter to Val asking for an outside audit of the boat club assessment. Starts in part two of the letter.

Here is a statement supporting the conclusion that no subdivision of the property ever occurred.

Here is an article in the Columbia Paper about the boat club.

Here we see Tal and Howard working to lower the assessment of the property without admitting the original assessment was a mistake.

Here we have Howard admitting a mistake and finding bizarre comparable properties to justify the erroneous assessment. (If it's a mistake, why assume it is about right?)

Here are photos of ongoing construction.

Here we see no building permits, no tax bills to the questionable acre, etc.


Saturday, January 1, 2011

Attorney Invoices: Mistakes Were Made

"'s like a cop pulling you over and demanding twenty bucks for gas..."

by Will, the dog guy

At this week's town board meeting (Thursday December 30), Martin Roby, the chicken guy, open government activist, raised the issue of attorney invoices. Attorney pay was the first part in the budget I investigated, to the extent I could figure out what is going on given way the town chose to hide the attorney invoices.

So far I have only popped the hood on one part of the budget and the engine isn't a fine tuned machine - more like a lot of mice in the radiator using the insulation for a nest. 10,000 dollars of taxpayer money is just missing in action and Supervisor Valerie Bertram refuses to look into the issue. But we'll get to that.

Martin is concerned about the appearance of petty corruption and wanted to give elected and appointed officials a chance to explain why the appearance of impropriety was not in fact inappropriate. I've been trying to get a response for a long time, so it seemed time to bring the issue up at a public meeting.

Here is a discussion at the December meeting when Mr. Rappleyea admits a mistake.

Martin spoke specifically of an incident in June 2009 in which I was billed 437.50 for research following my sessions with the planning board to get the permit to operate a home business.

Martin argues that giving a guy a bill for $437.50 at the meeting when he is granted a permit (for research done 4 months earlier) without warning him is like a cop pulling you over and asking for $20 for gas, Martin said. Except the cop didn't actually buy any gas.

Tal came up to me privately after the meeting was adjourned, after I got my permit in 2009. This gave me the impression that he has to pay an unadvertised fee in order to get my permit. The normal and legally mandated way to get applicants to pay consulting fees (engineering usually) is to set up an escrow account and have the applicant pay a sum in advance.

But the mistakes made in this case do not stop with the manner of billing. There is also the issue of whether Mr. Rappleyea did or did not do any research.

He did not, in fact, do any billable research. He billed me and the town for nothing.

The April 2009 invoice to the town of Stuyvesant for 687.50, of which I paid 437.50. Mr. Rappleyea did attend the meetings.

How do I know the research noted in the bill is wrong?

For the research to be billable to the town or to an applicant before a board, the research should pertain to some issue raised during the hearing or necessary to make a determination by the board. No such issue appears in the minutes of any of the relevant hearings.

My site plan review was one paragraph long. I doubt it took Tal 3.5 hours to review it.

Did someone ask him to research something? Was there a matter of law we needed to settle in order to proceed? Was there anything unknown or any controversies about any matter? Mr. Rappleyea does not now recall by memory what the issue was, as he stated at the December 30 meeting.

Further, the attorney's research would have had to be given or used at the time of the hearing to be billed at the time of hearing. If Mr. Rappleyea did not write a report for the board or speak to the board, or maybe present his research in the hearing or present me, since I paid for it, with some kind of report, then why is the research billable? Professional development is not billable to the board for this hearing. Research should be about an issue that pertains to this particular hearing and should be presented at the time of the hearing to someone involved, someone who then used or acknowledged the research at the time.

I have FOILed all the minutes and attachments to those minutes. There is no attorney research in those documents.

Bringing this issue up at the town meeting was no ambush: I have been writing to Valerie Bertram and sending in FOIL requests for months about attorney invoices. I have noted copies of these letters in the links at the end of this post.

We have one incident that appears to involve inappropriate timing and billing for work that was not done. We now have some idea of what the April 2009 bill involves. What about the other 11 months?

I FOILed the invoices for 2009 and Mr. Rappleyea, presumably, blacked out all the information on those invoices. I cannot see what issues he was working on, what percent of the time he was billed was spent on research versus, say, consultation or paperwork.

One month clearly, April, includes some problems. The other 11 months are blacked out, like secrets in a spy movie.

Why are they blacked out? On December 30 at the meeting, Tal said that he works for the board, not the town in general. Here is the audio of Tal's position. He said that he is allowed to black out or hide information that may be part of litigation or possibly part of litigation. Here is the audio of the discussion of potential litigation and actual litigation.

There was no ongoing litigation at the time and there is none now. So actual litigation cannot be a reason for his hiding his invoices.

What about potential litigation? Mr. Rappleyea blacked out every single item on every single invoice except for the work he did answering Martin Roby's FOIL requests.

Is Tal sure that Martin would never sue the town because he objects to his FOIL requests? Is everyone else possibly going to sue the town, including Columbia County, CSX railroad and the New York State Greenway agency, but not Martin Roby?

If the possibility of a lawsuit justifies hiding every single issue in the invoices except for Martin's FOIL requests, then it pretty much means Tal believes he does not have to expose any of his invoices to scrutiny.

Yet we know that one of the invoices was a mistake by his own admission. We know that there is a strong suggestion of fraud in one invoice. I would like to see the other eleven months. They're hidden. I have appealed the hiding of the content of the invoices. Check out the links below.

So let's look at the money. In 2009 the town of Stuyvesant spent $31,483 on attorney fees, according to the budget, only for Tal, there were no other lawyers paid. The 12 invoices noted above only added up to $21,450.

$10,000 is missing.

In September, I realized there was a $10,000 difference between the bills and the budget. So, in October 2010, I asked again for all documents adding up to and necessary to understand $31,383. I received a one page print out called "General Fund Vendors Ledger." That print out added up to $28,732.

I wrote a letter in November asking for an explanation, sending it to Valerie Bertram, supervisor, Melissa Naegeli, town clerk, and to Tal Rappleyea, attorney. I waited two weeks and got no response so I sent in a FOIL for attorney contracts and cancelled checks and other documents necessary to figure out this issue without an explanation from the chief executive of the town, Valerie Bertram.

Mistakes were made.

Substance of the FOIL appeal
Val's response to my appeal
My response to Val

Invoice January
Invoice July
Invoice Feb
Invoice June
Unblacked out invoice (as presented in June 2009)

Chart with missing money
Follow up FOIL after not receiving response to the above request for an explanation

Chicken Law video