For years now, Otsego County’s annual auction of foreclosed-on tax-delinquent properties has eaten up a lot of oxygen at the county Board of Representatives’ monthly meetings.
It’s the Whack-A-Mole of county government, which suggests: There are unresolved issues.
So a take-charge presentation by the new county treasurer, Allen Ruffles, at the November meeting was welcome, if partial.
First, he declared, having studied the issue, giving delinquent taxpayers four years to pay back bills is counterproductive. In the fourth year, the fees and interest that accrue just make it all that more likely property owners won’t be able to catch up.
Three years is the standard among New York State counties, and Ruffles – as he can within his treasurer’s duties – has implemented it, effective 2022.
Second, he encouraged the county board, as a companion measure, to pass a law enabling property owners to “buy back” their own homes.
Himself a former banker, Ruffles said most delinquent properties aren’t mortgaged and contain more-than-sufficient equity to qualify for bank loans to cover what’s owed.
The county board should promptly pass the enabling legislation.
While Ruffles didn’t need the county reps’ blessing, Rep. Danny Lapin, D-Oneonta, made a motion of support and it was approved, although three county reps – Kathy Clark, Michele Farwell and Andrew Stammel – abstained, uncertain about some of the particulars.
Ruffles’ presentation spurred a debate – of course, the Whack-A-Mole – on a related issue: Should county employees be allowed to bid at the annual delinquent-property auction.
There was general agreement that employees in the Treasurer’s and the County Attorney’s offices, who are elbows deep in preparing the annual tax sale, should be prohibited from bidding – elected officials, too – but beyond that there were divergences.
County Rep. Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla, objected to any restrictions, even on himself and the other reps, saying anyone who thinks a property is worth more could bid against him. The board vice chair, Gary Koutnik, D-Oneonta, called a ban “100-percent optics.” Iffy. .
Farwell, the freshman Democrat from Morris, had a more textured view: “We’re the government, and government has lost the people’s trust. I think if you take an extra step to ensure the public’s trust in government, there’s a payoff there worth more than the opportunity for any employee in the county to bid.”
She summed up: “If you are an employee of McDonald’s, you cannot participate in those sweepstakes.”
Readers, ask yourself and fellow employees: In 10, 20 or 30 years on the job, has buying property at public auction ever come up in office conversation? Most of you would say, not at all; not once. It’s just beyond most people’s consideration.
The problem here is county employees swim in a sea where delinquent property-tax sales are dissolved oxygen. Everybody breathes that air. It’s conversation
in coffee breaks, where the treasurer’s and county attorney’s employees are sipping and sharing in the conversation.
There’s simply too much of an opportunity for inside knowledge to be acquired; for county employees, if you will, to prey on the rest of us.
Of course, it’s hard to listen to any discussion about tax sales without putting it in the context of the August 2014 auction, where Maria Ajello lost her Town of Richfield home to a neighbor who happened to be a county employee.
Another wrinkle: under a then-new policy, Ajello and a Town of Butternuts property owner, Bob Force, were denied the right to buy back their properties on the day of the sale.
They still feel that injustice, and anyone who hears Maria’s monthly plea for mercy feels it too. Injustice left alone festers, with unintended consequences: Fearful, the county board feels it must have a deputy sheriff on duty at all its monthly meetings.
To sum up, Treasurer Ruffles has taken a business-like step in shortening foreclosure from four years to three. Any business owner knows: If you let a bill go unpaid for even a year, the chances of getting paid are miniscule. But he and the county board, hand in hand, should continue to pursue not a best practice or two, but all THE best practices:
• One, pass the buy-back legislation, so captured value can be freed and people can stay in their homes.
• Two, ban every county employee from bidding on delinquent properties. Steady work, plus good health benefits and a secure retirement are recompense enough.
• Three, begin negotiations to make Maria Ajello and Bob Force whole – the properties they lost were worth many multiples of the taxes they owed.
Due to the snow, perhaps, no member of the public appeared at the public hearing on Otsego County’s 2019 budget, which began at 6 p.m. this evening in Courtroom #1 in Cooperstown. Above, county board Chair David Bliss, left, gave the floor to Clerk of the Board Carol McGovern to officially convene proceedings. The budget keeps the tax increase under the state tax cap, and includes $500,000 in raises for 104 “M&C” (management and confidential employees) following a two-year, 16-county study to determine “average” wages. This county’s wages, it turned out, are 20 percent below the average. The study also recommended the county reps receive a $3,000 raise to their $10,500 salaries, the first increase since 2008. Inset at left are county Personnel Director Penny Gentile, whose office conducted the salary survey; County Attorney Ellen Coccoma, County Treasurer Allen Ruffles, and Deputy Treasurer Andrew Crisman. Seated in the jury dock, in top photo, are, from left, County Reps. Andrew Marietta, Gary Koutnik, Danny Lapin, Peter Oberacker, Michele Farwell, Keith McCarty, Andrew Stammel and Ed Frazier. Seated next to McGovern is her deputy, Jenna Utter. (Jim Kevlin/AllOTSEGO.com)
ONEONTA – Mayor Gary Herzig, Town Supervisor Bob Wood, county board reps and local elected officials will be sworn in for new terms at 1 p.m. Monday, Jan 1., at Hartwick College’s Shineman Chapel. The new county Democratic chair, Kim Muller, will emcee.
Meanwhile, that morning, the new county treasurer, Allen Ruffles, will be sworn in at 11 a.m. at the county courthouse in Cooperstown by county Judge John Lambert.
Retired assemblyman Tony Casale, above, right, introduces Cooperstown insurance man Ben Novellano, Davenport, to Cindy Seward, left, seated next to her husband, state Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, at this morning’s Cooperstown Rotary Election Day Pancake Breakfast, a traditional stopping off point for candidates and politicians. Novellano, a Cooperstown Rotarian, chairs the club’s Pancake Breakfast Committee. Next to Casale is his wife, Theresa, and son Vince, Otsego County Republican chairman, who is chatting with Allen Ruffles, unopposed for county treasurer in today’s voting. Inset photo, polling staffers Patricia Swanger, left, and Betsey Snyder check in voter Earl Peterson at Cooperstown’s polling place, the parish hall at St. Mary’s “Our Lady of the Lake” Catholic Church. Polls are open across Otsego County today for county and town races, as well as ballot questions including whether to call a statewide Constitutional Convention. Polls are open until 9 p.m. (Jim Kevlin/AllOTSEGO.com)
COOPERSTOWN – Citing his experience as deputy county treasurer, Allen Ruffles – raised in Edmeston, now living in Cooperstown – today officially announced his candidacy for Otsego County treasurer.
With wife Amy and their two children, Mia and Cooper, by his side, and flanked by the county’s top elected Republican, state Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, and top elected Democrat, current County Treasurer Dan Crowell, Ruffles made the announcement in front of several family, friends and supporters at noon in front of the County Office Building.
“Throughout my life, commitment and dedication have been very important to me. As a teacher, youth coach, financial adviser, bank manager, member of the Army Reserves and now as your deputy county treasurer, these principles have always driven my desire to serve and give back to a community that has given so much to me,” Ruffles said during his announcement.
OPENING RECEPTION – 5:30-7 p.m. “Our Town” exhibit featuring works by the students of the Cooperstown High School. The Fenimore Art Museum, 5798 NY-80, Cooperstown. Info, www.fenimoreartmuseum.org/Our-Town
YOUNG PROFESSIONALS – 6-8 p.m. Come meet young professionals from the Otsego area. Allen Ruffles will host with representatives from local businesses like Bassett, NYSHA, NYCM, NY Life, and Otsego County. They will be giving resume and application tips, interviewing advice, and presenting about their businesses. Rustic Ridge Winery, 2805 St. Hwy. 80, Burlington Flats, Info, www.facebook.com/YoungProfessionalsNetworkYPN/
COOPERSTOWN – Responding to his Democratic counterpart a few moments ago, county Republican Committee Chairman Vince Casale said county treasurer candidate Allen Ruffles doesn’t want a Democratic cross-nomination.
“Mr. Ruffles has only sought the Republican nomination,” said Casale. “He has never reached out to the Democrats at all,” and he has no plans to do so now.
COOPERSTOWN – The Democratic county chairman, Richard Abbate, said Republican county treasurer candidate Allen Ruffles has the right to appear before the county committee and ask for its endorsement.
But, Abbate said a few moments ago, Ruffles, current deputy county treasurer, is unlikely to get it. “I think we have enough problems with Republicans in this country,” he continued. “We’re looking for a good Democrat.”
MILFORD – The Otsego County Republican Committee over the weekend unanimously endorsed Allen Ruffles, Democratic treasurer Dan Crowell’s deputy, for county treasurer.
“We are very pleased to have a candidate of this caliber,” said GOP County Chair Vince Casale. “Allen’s experience is second to none. He will be a great candidate and certainly a tremendous asset to our county as our treasurer.”
The endorsement, made at a Saturday morning meeting at The Elm Inn, means Ruffles’ name will appear on the Republican ballot line in November.
COOPERSTOWN – County Treasurer Dan Crowell has announced he won’t seek a third term, and will be “whole-heartedly” supporting his deputy, Allen Ruffles, former Key Bank branch manager, for the the job.
Crowell said he is considering career options both in the military – he is a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve – and the private sector.
Crowell issued this announcement at 12:51 this afternoon:
COOPERSTOWN – Allen Ruffles of Edmeston, Key Bank manager in Cooperstown, is joining the county Treasurer’s Office as deputy treasurer, Treasurer Dan Crowell announced this morning.
The position has been vacant for six years, since Carol McGovern was recruited as clerk of the county Board of Representatives.
Crowell, whose second four-year term expires at the end of next year, said “there’s a huge scope of activity” within the office, and his plan is to train Ruffles on a parallel track, so he is familiar with all the treasurer’s activities, and also give him specific duties.