$170,000: That’s the value of the contract awarded by the Hudson Common Council last year to GAR Associates to reassess properties Citywide. (Evidently Sole Assessor Garth Slocum either wasn’t up to, or could not be trusted with, that task.)
Underwritten by local taxpayers, that six-figure pricetag is payment for the privilege of having the City’s own consultant launch a surprise offensive against one of its most dynamic and essential industries—its constantly-booked bed and breakfasts. City leaders profess to have been blindsided by GAR’s decision, which may have far-reaching consequences.
The $170,000 question then is: How could GAR’s move catch the City unawares—if indeed that move was a surprise? Put another way: Who is minding the Hudson store?
When GAR was originally hired, Council President Don Moore painted a Panglossian picture of how well that $170,000 might be spent. The March 15th, 2011 Council minutes report Moore as saying:
President Moore [...] stated after an extensive process they had settled on GAR Associates Inc. which were highly recommended and impressive in terms of the programs they had presented. President Moore said “in so far as property taxation is an issue of both financial revenue but also of fairness and concern throughout the city that we need to do everything we can as a city government to make sure that we have this objective and fair professional job of appraising and assessing property of the city as possible”.
But as first reported by Carole Osterink at Gossips of Rivertown, this unilateral and sweeping change of all local B&Bs from residential to commercial classification may cause each of those home-based businesses a sudden financial and legal hardship. It would likely incur new mortgage costs (or even invalidation of existing mortgages).
And, more alarmingly, it might turn B&Bs in residential districts into non-conforming uses, potentially forcing them to close while they try to obtain a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals. Lastly, it appears that GAR based its revaluation of these properties based on B&Bs outside the City, claiming no such sales occurred locally to use as comparables (“comps”). That claim ignores the fact that at least one residence within the City Limits was sold in the past year to an existing B&B to expand its operations.
A spot check of five B&Bs around the County at the Real Property Department indicated that all of them are classified as residential properties, not commercial. Bed-and-breakfasts in Chatham, Copake, Hillsdale, Kinderhook and Taghkanic were found to be classified on the tax rolls as residential dwellings, either single or multi-family.
As it happens, GAR did the resassment in Taghkanic. And a spot check of a sixth B&B there reveals an inconsistency in their approach, as this one is classified as commercial. Moreover, GAR’s work in Taghkanic was brought to the attention of Moore and other Aldermen around the time their contract was approved because problems had arisen there.
Several months before the Hudson contract was authorized, The Register-Star reported in December 2010 that GAR “paid the town [Taghkanic] a hefty refund” only after local Democrats noticed that only $4,000 worth of work was performed despite their having received a $20,000 retainer:
Councilman Larry Kadish said any remaining money should be returned to the cash-strapped town’s coffers.
“It’s our money and it should be sitting in our account,” Kadish said. “I don’t accept this as a reasonable way to do business.”
Kadish also said he was troubled by the fact that the town’s taxpayers appeared to have paid considerably more for assessing services than residents of neighboring towns.
But learning from others’ experience and heeding advice is not much in fashion in Hudson politics, so Moore and the Council raced ahead with approving the $170,000 to GAR.
Further inspection of the Council minutes from March 2011 [PDF] does not indicate that the Aldermen retained for themselves any formal oversight of GAR’s activities once the $170K was approved. The terse resolution passed that night without opposition delegated the authority to then-Mayor Rick Scalera “to enter into a contract with GAR Associates Inc. for professional service for a citywide reassessment of the City to be completed for the 2012 assessment roll.”
The answer to the $170,000 Question thus may lie in the contract negotiated by Scalera with GAR. Would GAR report to the Mayor’s office, or to the Council, or to the Sole Assessor? Would any elected officials retain the ability to monitor and correct GAR’s work, or did the City abrogate its own power to undo such abrupt, unilateral moves like the assault on the B&Bs?
A copy of the GAR contract and any related correspondence or amendments has been requested from the City, and its contents will be reported here assuming it is responsive.