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)
BURLINGTON – The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation cut the ribbon this morning on the revamped Basswood Pond State Forest recreational area. The $100,000 project added several features to the site, while making the pond fully accessible to handicapped visitors.
“With the completion of these new accessible features, visitors with mobility impairments can enjoy the natural beauty and recreational opportunities at Basswood Pond,” said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos.
“These improvements, through Governor Cuomo’s Adventure NY initiative, are just a sample of the recreational upgrades that New York has underway to better serve everyone who wants to enjoy our state’s great outdoors,” he said.
COOPERSTOWN – After a 15-month standoff, Ros Devlin’s fate as a correctional officer is now in the hands of the chairman of the Otsego County Board of Representatives.
With one abstention and two absences, the county reps voted a few minutes ago to accept Sheriff Richard J. Devlin Jr.’s proposal to turn over authority for investigating and possibly removing his son from his job to county board Chair David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Otsego.
In a short discussion, county Rep. Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla, first thanked Bliss for moving matters forward, but he asked the county labor attorney, Matt Ryan, “Does this get us where we need to be?”
In a press release sent out this morning, Otsego County Director of 911 Communications Robert O’Brien announced that the county’s 911 dispatch department had secured $842,330 in New York State grant funding. The total sum is divided between two seperate grants: $157,687 under the New York State Public Safety Answering Points Operation Grant Program for upgrades to the call center, and $684,650.00 under the New York State Statewide Interoperable Communications Grant Program which will be used to build three additional communications towers to improve coverage for the dispatchers.
She was nominated and elected temporary chair of the reorganizational meeting, presiding over the transition of the chairmanship from Kathy Clark, R-Otego, to David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield.
And she emerged from the morning’s decision-making as chair of the Administration Committee – Ways & Means, through which all resolutions must flow before getting to the floor of the monthly county board meeting.