As supervisor had sought replacement, Knox assessor plans to leave his post in the fall

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider

Russell Pokorny said he chose to leave his position as town assessor at the end of his term in 2019 in part because the town supervisor had already intended to replace him in 2018.

KNOX — With a term expiring in September, town assessor Russell Pokorny says he is not going to seek reappointment. He noted that the town had advertised in 2018 for assessor applicants.

“I think we can all agree this is one of the most important positions in the town of Knox,” said Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis at the Jan. 9 Knox Town Board meeting.

Pokorny told The Enterprise on Jan. 23 that part of the reason he had chosen to step down now was because Lefkaditis had already indicated he would be looking for a replacement for him soon.

Pokorny, who is 71, has been the Knox assessor for the last 14 years, updating the paper-record system into a computerized system. His wife, Amy Pokorny, served as a town councilwoman for five years before running unsuccessfully against Lefkaditis in 2017.

Pokorny said that his marriage to Amy Pokorny was likely a reason the supervisor had tried to replace him.

Lefkaditis did not return a phone call or respond to emailed questions for comment before press time.

Pokorny told The Enterprise that sometime before Oct. 1, 2018, he was informed that the town had posted on its website an advertisement for town assessor. Pokorny said he then reminded Lefkaditis that his term was up in 2019, not 2018, and Lefkaditis told him that he would then “have another year.”

Lefkaditis, a Democrat who couldn’t get the town committee’s backing, was elected on the Conservative Party line in 2015, ousting long-time Democratic supervisor, Michael Hammond. His first two years in office, Lefkaditis had trouble getting the appointments he wanted as Democratic board members who had served under Hammond didn’t back his choices.

In 2017, Lefkaditis and two running mates on the GOP line were elected. On Jan. 1, 2019 they voted together, against the two Democratic councilmembers, to appoint three new transfer station workers, firing the three who had worked there.

Pokorny noted it hasn’t been just himself and the transfer-station workers whom the supervisor has wanted to replace. After Lefkaditis and his two Republican running mates won the 2017 election, in 2018, the town board replaced zoning, planning, and conservation board members along with people in other town posts, like the Knox attorney, planning board chairman, and deputy supervisor.

Lefkaditis told The Enterprise after the election that his advertising for numerous appointments was combatting cronyism, calling it “the rust on this great government’s metal.”

“He’s found people who are not particularly capable and very malleable,” said Pokorny, of the Lefkaditis appointments.

Pokorny said that he wasn’t sure why the supervisor would seek someone else for what Pokorny considers a non-political position.

One issue Pokorny and Lefkaditis differed on was defending the worth of Altamont’s reservoir, which is located in Knox.

After Altamont filed a suit in the state’s Supreme Court, the town and village agreed in 2017 that the reservoir, which had had an assessed value of $1 million, should be assessed at two-thirds of that value — meaning a significant loss of tax money for Knox.

Lefkaditis, who had not wanted the town to pay for an appraisal, said that Knox came out better than expected, while Pokorny said at the time that Knox could have been better prepared. The village paid about $11,000 for an appraisal and an assessed value report to submit to the court, which Altamont’s mayor said was money well-spent since it would reduce the tax burden for years to come.

Despite no one telling him about the search for a new assessor last year, Pokorny said that he found two of the people Lefkaditis told him had applied to be worthwhile candidates. With that in mind, Pokorny said that he considered turning over the job to someone who could do it well, but there wasn’t enough time to train the new hire for a smooth transition and so he decided to wait until 2019 when his term was up to leave the position.

“I think it would be nice to let somebody else have a crack at it,” Pokorny said this week.

Pokorny said Lefkaditis told him two people had applied, John Valachovic and Walter Scram; Scram could not be reached for comment this week and Valachovic said he had not submitted his name.

Civil Service protection

Pokorny likened the attempts to replace him to the firing of the three transfer-station attendants on New Year’s Day. Pokorny doesn’t believe he could have been forced to leave his job without just cause.

Two of the three fired workers have been Knox transfer-station attendants for more than five years and also may be protected under Civil Service Law, which The Enterprise discovered and reported on in a Jan. 9 story.

Michael Marr, a personnel technician for the Albany County Department of Civil Service, said this week that the position of “Assessor 1” is a non-competitive position in the Civil Service, and so Pokorny would be eligible for certain protections from dismissal since he has held the job for more than five years.

Marr also said that the county’s Civil Service office has been communicating with the town of Knox and the state’s Department of Civil Service about whether the town is legally able to dismiss its transfer station workers. The positions are categorized as labor, and had been until recently ineligible for protections from dismissal and discipline, but an amendment passed last year extended protection to workers who had been on the job for more than five years, which could mean at least two of the former attendants are protected.

All three of the fired workers want their jobs back and are communicating with the state and county Civil Service offices about it, according to Mark Young, the only one of the three who had not held his Knox job for more than five years.

Assessor’s duties

At the Jan. 9 Knox Town Board meeting, Lefkaditis suggested that the entire board interview assessor candidates soon in order to allow the chosen applicant time to “shadow” Pokorny. At the meeting, Pokorny expressed concern about how prepared the new assessor would be, noting his own training when he began the job had been extensive.

“I tell you, that’s a hard thing to do … ,” he told The Enterprise on Jan. 23, of training a successor. “But I’m ready to help somebody.”

The job is considered part-time, said Pokorny, and pays about $10,000. He said most of the duties involve maintaining the town’s property assessment rolls, which are published online and kept in the town hall. Pokorny estimates that there are about 1,500 properties and 1,000 households in Knox.

The job requires updating the assessment rolls, including publishing both a trial roll and a final roll. Assessments in the trial rolls can be challenged on Grievance Day, held statewide each year on the fourth Tuesday in May. Although the town’s board of assessment review evaluates grievances, Pokorny said that he sits in for consultation.

Pokorny also has to send the assessment rolls to the four school districts located in Knox — Berne-Knox-Westerlo, Duanesburg, Schoharie, and Guilderland — and also works with the school districts, fire department, and the town tax collector when tax bills are sent out.

Other tasks include managing property exemptions, such as sending out letters to renew exemptions and evaluating these. Building permits are also evaluated, which Pokorny said involves reviewing properties in person.

“Because a lot of times they don’t do it, and then — did the garage turn into a garage with an in-law apartment in it?” he said.

The assessor’s job also involves working with banks that escrow accounts for taxpayers, and working with Albany County to send information about property transfers or sales.

In addition, the assessor helps residents make address changes, merge properties, and find information for applying for variances, as well as helping Realtors and appraisers find property information.

“It’s very nearly a full-time commitment,” Pokorny said. “The good thing about it is I can work the hours of my own choosing.”

Pokorny lets people call him most times of the day, but assessors can alternatively keep set office hours.

Pokorny said he formerly managed a department in data-processing at KeyBank. After he left that job, he and his wife bought and ran the former Knox Country Store, which, during their tenure, was a restaurant, general store, and community meeting place, complete with a piano for impromptu local concerts.

Pokorny later got a job as a consultant for a software company. It was during this time that he started working as the town assessor, and eventually left his consulting job but continued as assessor.

Pokorny said he first worked with the previous assessor, Whanda Shedina, for about a year, unpaid, to learn to do the job. While Shedina kept records largely in handwritten documents, Pokorny transitioned records to a computerized system as he moved into the role, he said.

Once he retires as assessor, Pokorny said, he plans to continue volunteering in the many local organizations he is a part of, including as treasurer of the Kiwanis Club of the Helderbergs, secretary of the Knox Fire District, and president of Helderberg Community Energy LLC.

Pokorny said that, despite Lefkaditis’s push to replace him, he still does not feel personal animosity toward Lefkaditis.

“He and I drive a truck together, just the two of all us all the time … so we get along personally,” said Pokorny, referring to their both serving in the Knox Volunteer Fire Company.

He concluded, “But I’m not Vas’s guy; I was appointed by Mike Hammond … I think Vas really wants to have his own person.”

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