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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, January 21, 2010
Split board in stalemate
By Anne Hayden
GUILDERLAND The Metro 20 Diner on Western Avenue is seeking to reduce its assessed value by nearly $1 million, and will take the town to court on March 1.
The politically split town board, at a meeting on Tuesday, was stalemated on whether to obtain an outside appraisal; with one Democrat absent, the town fell short of the three-vote majority needed to have an appraisal to bring to court to defend its assessment.
The diner, at 1709 Western Ave., has held an assessed value of $1,631,500 since 2005, when Carol Wysomski was Guilderland’s assessor. The property owner, Demetrios Michael, challenged that assessment for the first time in 2008, and challenged it again in 2009, according to John Macejka, who is now Guilderland’s assessor.
Michael asked for a reduction to $668,000 in 2008, and to $664,500 in 2009. Paul Goldman, of Segel, Goldman, Mazzotta, and Siegel, is representing Michael, and said the matter is being taken to court because the town has not made an acceptable settlement offer.
It’s not the first time Michael has had grievances with the town. He appeared before the town’s zoning board of appeals multiple times after his diner opened in 1998, to face complaints that he was violating his special use permit. In 1999, The Enterprise reported that Michael told the zoning board he felt his diner was “being singled out.”
Also in 1999, Michael attended a town board meeting and accused Kenneth Runion, who was campaigning for his first term as supervisor, of extortion. The town board, predominantly Republican at that point, called for an investigation, but county and state boards of election found the allegations false.
Commercial properties are assessed differently than residential ones, Macjeka explained. The diner is an income-producing business, which would be the defining factor in its assessment, he said.
The Guilderland Board of Assessment Review, charged with reviewing grievances, decided in both 2008 and 2009 that the diner’s assessment was fair, said Macejka. The next step, according to the assessor, would be to go to court and exchange appraisals the town would retain an appraiser, and compare the result with the property owner’s appraisal.
In order to retain an appraisal company, the town board must approve the funding by a majority vote. On Tuesday, Runion, the Democratic supervisor, and Democratic councilwoman Patricia Slavick, voted to retain GAR Associates for the appraisal, but Republicans Warren Redlich and Mark Grimm abstained. The fifth town board member, Democrat Paul Pastore, was absent, so the tally fell short of the required three-vote majority. Therefore, the town will not have an appraisal to exchange on March 1.
Redlich and Grimm said at the meeting that they abstained from the vote because they did not feel they were furnished with enough information about the assessment challenge. Redlich told The Enterprise yesterday that the town board should have been informed about the situation back in 2008.
“We don’t know what we could settle for without going through this litigation,” said Redlich yesterday. He said Supervisor Runion thought the assessor should handle the litigation, and that the town board should have no role.
“The law really requires that there is an independence between the assessor and the town board, to make sure there are no politics involved,” Runion responded through The Enterprise.
“We make the ultimate decision, and the town board made no decision,” Redlich asserted.
Daniel Centi, of Feeney, Centi and Mackey, has been retained for counsel to the assessor, and Redlich said he also felt that decision should have come before the board.
Runion said yesterday that the challenges were against the assessor, and not the town, and therefore it would be Macejka’s decision to retain counsel. Grimm had objected before to hiring Centi since he is married to the town clerk.
“Centi has worked on other certiori matters before,” said Macejka, of his decision.
“If Grimm and Redlich want to be involved in litigation, they should be town attorneys,” Runion said.
Both Runion and Macjeka are concerned that the lack of an outside appraisal will be a handicap in court.
“It puts the town in a very bad position, and makes it hard for the assessor to defend himself and support the assessment,” said Runion. Macjeka said the lack of an outside appraisal would severely “hamstring” his ability to defend himself.
Goldman, Michael’s attorney, said he has an appraisal ready to go for March 1. The diner, he said, is assessed at $423 per square foot, when it should be assessed at roughly $200 per square foot. Michael is paying $9 in taxes per square foot, when most retail companies pay $2, Goldman said.
Guilderland’s assessments, according to Goldman, are no longer at true value; the town has a state-set equalization rate of 79 percent. With the current assessment of $1,631,500, that translates into a value of $2,062,000 for the Metro 20 Diner.
“I want a trial. I want to get this thing done. This guy can’t even afford to pay his taxes,” said Goldman.
If Michael and Goldman are successful in court, Macjeka estimates that the result would mean that the town and school together would have to refund $48,185 for property taxes in 2008 and 2009, and $24,397 in 2010. The total estimated refund would be $72,582, he said.
Goldman said he did not necessarily think the town’s lack of an outside appraisal would work in his favor. But, he said, if he is not successful in lowering Michael’s assessment, they will challenge it again next year.