Village pays $11K to support case challenging worth of reservoir property

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

The dam and spillway in the second of two reservoirs in Knox owned by Altamont are a liability, the village maintains. Knox has assessed the property at $1.6 million; the village is challenging the assessment in court and on Tuesday agreed to spend $11,00 for an appraisal.

ALTAMONT — The village board decided on Tuesday to invest in an appraisal of its reservoir property, located in Knox, to support a suit it filed this summer. The village contends that, since the reservoir is no longer used, it shouldn’t be valued, or taxed, as a reservoir.

After meeting Tuesday in closed session for about half an hour — as allowed by the state’s Open Meetings Law for discussion of litigation — the four board members present all voted in favor of two resolutions.  One  authorizes the mayor to sign a contract with Robinson Appraisal Consultants for $8,500 for an appraisal of the Altamont reservoir; Robinson would be paid $175 an hour for work not covered by the contract.

The other is to pay engineers Barton & Loguidice $2,440 for an assessed value report.

“Knox and the village have to file appraisals by April 17,” said Trustee Kerry Dineen who ran Tuesday’s meeting in the absence of Mayor James Gaughan.

The Knox Town Board decided last month not to pay for an appraisal.

“The burden of proof is on us, as the property owner,” Trustee Dean Whalen told The Enterprise after Tuesday’s Altamont meeting.

The village’s lawyer, Jason Shaw, with Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna, told The Enterprise last summer when the tax certiorari proceeding was filed against Knox in state Supreme Court, the bottom rung of a three-tiered system, that he had been surprised to learn that one municipality could tax another. The same law, he noted, would allow the village property in Knox to be exempted from tax.

“Albany County did that, which makes sense,” said Shaw. “The town of Knox has not and will not, and the Guilderland School District has not and will not. They’re collecting tax from the village taxpayers of Altamont, which is weird.”

When Gaughan appeared before the Guilderland School Board two-and-a-half years ago, making an exemption request, the board president at the time said the board was sorry but the school district could not spare the income.

“We haven’t been asked for an exemption since that time,” Neil Sanders, assistant superintendent for business at the Guilderland schools, told The Enterprise on Wednesday. “We haven’t had any discussion with the current board about it.”

In the past, the school district has worked with the town of Guilderland in financing appraisals and attorneys’ fees to defend assessments of properties in the school district. Sanders explained that this applied only to large commercial concerns like challenges from Stuyvesant Plaza and Hamilton Square.

The school district uses a model, Sanders said, to see if defending a certiorari claim is worth it in terms of tax revenues. The usual cost for such a case ranges from $32,000 to $50,000, Sanders said.

The Guilderland school district currently gets about $22,000 in tax revenues from the reservoir property, Sanders said. If Altamont’s challenge were successful, the school district would lose about $17,000 annually in tax dollars from that property, he said.

“We get the money either way,” Sanders said of the school district. “It would just shift to other taxpayers.”

He concluded, “At this level, we typically let the towns manage their certioraris...What we look at is protecting the taxpayers’ interests, preserving the tax base.”

The parcel is 303 acres, according to Knox assessor Russell Pokorny; it includes both an upper and a lower reservoir and is valued, in total, at $1.6 million — a value he said was set in 1997 by the state’s Office of Real Property Services, which came up with a detailed list of components besides the land.

The reservoir was built at the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century, the mayor said last summer, but the village has since switched to groundwater, which is safer; maintaining the reservoir property is a liability, he said.

The full value of the land alone is $447,200, said Pokorny, which he said was “probably on the high side of average.” The figure is not far from the village appraisal, in July, which set the full market value of the reservoir property at $390,000. When the village made its case in May to the Knox Board of Assessment Review to lower the assessment to $241,800 based on the equalization rate, it was denied.

The land has open meadows around two reservoirs, about a half-mile apart. A service road wends through heavily wooded land between the two bodies of water.

While the full value of the reservoir property is $1.6 million, Knox’s state-set equalization rate is 62 percent, making the value for taxing roughly $1 million.

The village pays the school district $33,198 annually in taxes and pays Knox (in town, highway, and fire district taxes) $5,281 annually, Pokorny calculated this summer. Giving a single snapshot in time, Pokorny said, if the property were to be exempt from taxes, to make up that difference, each of the roughly 1,000 households in Knox would pay an extra $38 in taxes annually, he said.

At December’s Knox Town Board meeting, Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis argued against the town attorney’s recommendation to hire an appraiser for Knox’s case in the certiorari proceeding. Lefkaditis said the considerable cost of an appraisal was not worth it when compared to the cost to taxpayers of a reduced assessment to the reservoir property.

Lefkaditis told The Enterprise that, if the reservoir property’s value were reduced to $350,000, a Knox home assessed at $100,000 would have to pay another $3.05 in annual taxes. Lefkaditis concluded, “We estimate that the cost of an appraisal expert could be as much as $6,000 or $3.82 per taxable lot and that’s money we could never earn back.”

Last summer, Shaw summed up the village’s position this way: “It’s not a reservoir; it can’t be used as a reservoir for the future. Our appraiser valued the land under the water. That’s what it is worth. The water is personal property. It’s not real property. It’s not like anybody is buying the water; it doesn’t generate income.

“The dam is a liability; it’s not an asset. Who wants a dam you have to maintain?...To add insult to injury, the village is charged for it.”

“I represent the town of Knox,” said Pokorny, summing up his town’s view the week the suit was filed. “I’m trying to represent them in the most fiscally responsible way I can….We’re going to have to research the value.” Referencing the 1997 figure, which is the same one Knox is using today, $1.6 million, Pokorny pointed out that is reduced already to 62 percent because of the equalization rate.

He went on, “Is it worth less? The same? More? ... One thing we’ll stick with is: The reservoir still has value as a reservoir….To think that water has no value is ridiculous.”

Fire calls

The board received a monthly report Tuesday from Fire Chief Paul Miller, itemizing 10 December calls that totaled close to 77 volunteer hours.

Several of the calls were related to a double power outage on Dec. 16 — once just after midnight and then again at around 6:30 a.m.

The Altamont firefighters made a call that day due to hazardous conditions on Gardner Road and Route 146 caused by the power line falling, Miller’s report said.

Another call was made to the group home at 150 Western Ave. in the village because, when the power came back on, a switch in a generator the home had been using didn’t turn completely back over to street power, Miller said, “so the transformer switch burned up.”

The most serious call on Dec. 16 was to a home on Bond Road for a chimney fire that had extended into the ceiling. “Seven departments and three hours later, we contained it to the ceiling above the stove,” said Miller, noting the house remained habitable.

The firefighters answered two calls for “culinary mishaps” in December — one on Bond Road and another on Gun Club Road. “He was cooking burgers and forgot to turn on the fan over the stove,” Miller said of the Gun Club Road mishap. “It filled the house with smoke.” Miller also said that calls for culinary mishaps “are becoming more frequent with husbands deciding to cook.”

Three calls in December were false alarms — one on Dutch Hill Terrace and two at the Northeastern Industrial Park, which, Miller said, was having problems with its alarm system. “When we get a call on an alarm drop,” said Miller, “we’re required to go in and physically see there’s no fire in the house.” This is to prevent someone from purposely burning his home, Miller said.

The Altamont department also answered a call from Grand Street for a carbon-monoxide alarm, which are required by new building codes, Miller said, and a call from Wormer Road because of a compact fluorescent light bulb smoking

Summarizing the year 2016 for The Enterprise, Miller said there were 881 hours of volunteer service. The fewest hours, 20, were in June and the most, 201, were in October. Altogether, there were 113 calls answered in 2016, up 40 calls from the year before.

Three weeks in a row this fall, the Altamont volunteers had to battle structure fires. “We had more structure fires this year than we’ve had in my 33 years as chief,” said Miller.

There are 30 volunteers on the department’s rolls, he said, and it is difficult to find more.

“The training requirements they have now are membership killers,” said Miller. Miller himself works full-time in building maintenance as well as fulfilling his chief’s duties and being the father of two — a daugher, 22, studying to be a physical therapist, and a son who will turn 16 on Friday.

“No one wants to take 140 hours of training to go into a burning building,” Miller concluded.

Other business

In other business at its Jan. 3 meeting, the village board:

— Set the village hall at 115 Main St. as the polling place for the March 21 village elections; the polls will be open from noon until 9 p.m.;

— Heard that villagers may place discarded Christmas trees at the curbs in front of their homes; they will be removed and ground into mulch; and

— Were reminded that, from Nov. 1 to May 1, there is to be no parking on village streets from midnight to  7 a.m. so that snow may be removed.

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