Does the firm hired to reëvaluate Hudson property tax assessments, or even the local Assessor himself, answer to anyone?
And, was there a tacit understanding among the Aldermen that Sole Assessor Garth Slocum would be resigning or removed soon after they approved GAR’s $170,000 contract?
The answer to the first question would appear to be “no,” and to the second “well, maybe.”
The abrupt and unheralded switch of all the City’s bed and breakfasts from residential to commercial classification became publicly known earlier this week via citizen complaints to their Aldermen, rather than via discussion or disclosure by GAR or the City itself. A storm of protest immediately (and not at all surprisingly) followed, with City officials and politicos expressing concern or even outrage of their own:
“We are behind all of the B&Bs. This won’t stand,” wrote Hudson City Democratic Chair Victor Mendolia.
“I am equally concerned about this potential change or designation/declassification,” said Mayor Bill Hallenbeck, adding that “I am in constant communication with the Council President on this matter.”
“[A]s an alderman whose ward includes many of the City’s B&Bs, I’m trying to get to the bottom of this,” said one of the 3rd Ward’s two Council representatives, John Friedman.
But it is unclear that the above have many (if any) legal or legislative cudgels with which to compel GAR or the Assessor’s office to change or moderate their stance, besides asking nicely (or meanly). There is no immediately obvious way for the Mayor, Council President, Aldermen, or the Hudson Democrats who hold every seat on the Council to compel a reversal, because they appear to have forfeited that power when they turned the negotiations over to former Mayor Scalera, resulting in a $170,000 GAR contract.
To help answer these questions, this site submitted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request on Wednesday to the City requesting a copy of the contract with that firm, GAR Associates, and any other records pertaining to its contractual obligations. Tracy Delaney, the consistently helpful City Clerk, quickly provided access to the contract to the City’s website by uploading it to their site, at this link.
The contract refers generally to “the City” as its client, but mentions no one but the Sole Assessor with whom they would be actively working. The Council members appear to have retained no ability to steer GAR’s work when approving the funding, only to receive “monthly progress reports.” Thus far, no such reports have been forwarded at this point by the City in response to the FOIL request, but a specific request has been made, if they exist.
There is one interesting passage in the contract which may suggest why the Council may have agreed to take a passive role in this highly-charged, high-stakes process:
The CITY and the CONTRACTOR acknowledge that changes in the City’s assessment staff, specifically the City Assessor during the term of the Project could impact the timing of meeting Project milestones and providing Project deliverables. In the event that the City Assessor as of the date of this Agreement is no longer actively working on the Project during the term hereof, the parties acknowledge that there may be additional costs for the time spent on transition to substitute personnel for the City. In such event, the parties hereby agree to reasonably negotiate [to] adjust the price… [emphases added]
In other words, the GAR contract specifically signalled that the firm had been warned that the City might be changing assessors. GAR clearly was mindful enough of this likelihood to make sure that they would not be held responsible for any delays which resulted, and compensated for any additional costs.
The Aldermen may have viewed this as a sign that they were getting rid of the controversial Assessor* in exchange for funding GAR’s work. In speaking with people who attended or participated in the deliberations, there are some indications that the Council was led to believe this was the deal. However, others might view the contractual language above as insurance against Slocum’s resignation or removal—since it could incur more delay and cost involved with the reassessements.
The contract also specifies that GAR is an “independent contractor,” firmly stating that “no principal-agent or employee-employer relationship is created by this agreement.” In other words, we deliver the results, you pay for them, and that’s it. It does mention at several points that the firm would “work with” or provide information at the request of the Assessor, though these seem to refer to straightforward information exchanges, rather than policy decisions like changing all the B&Bs’ tax classification. A letter was issued by Slocum in April 2011 largely mirroring information also issued by GAR.
Moreover, if the contract’s payment schedule has been adhered to, by this point GAR has been paid all but $23,000 of the $170,000 they were promised. That’s not chickenfeed, but it further reduces the City’s leverage if they wanted to try to bring GAR to heel.
Attached in the contract is a letter from GAR Vice President F. Cindy Bare to Council President Moore dated October 11, 2010, which indicates that they had met face-to-face, and further lays out GAR’s case for being hired for $170,000. There is no further indication that Moore retained a role for himself in overseeing their work once it was funded. The letter offers to provide the City Attorney a “contract template” to work from.
In short, even if City officials were genuinely surprised and concerned about this sudden threat to a vital component of its economic engine, it is not at all certain that they can do anything except plead with GAR to change its position. As this site reported earlier in the week, the practice the firm has adopted in Hudson is not common to the rest of the County: five out of six B&Bs outside Hudson that were spot-checked are classified as residences, not commercial property. The simplest solution, and maybe the only one still available to City officials, is to persuade GAR or Garth to change the classifications back to avoid having an unhappy client. Problem is they don’t have to, and it’s debatable how unhappy some officials really are about it.
One other interesting tidbit gleaned from the contract: GAR and the City (represented by Rick Scalera) agreed to leave one part of Hudson out of the revaluation process: “Hudson Deep Water Port.”** Deeming that area “Unique or Highly Complex,” they agreed to leave it alone unless the City agreed later to additional fees—without specifying which parcels would be exempted. One assumes however, that the major property holder there—Holcim—was left out of the reval process.
At least one other question remains: What power does the Mayor’s office have over the Assessor? That has been a longstanding local debate, one which will have to wait for a separate post...
* Anecdotally, various taxpayers claim that Slocum has made his personal distaste for new property owners in general, and at least one B&B owner in particular, quite plain to them.
** Note: Legally, Hudson has no “Deep Water Port,” as it does not qualify for that classification under Federal law. But Holcim and its backers prefer this terminology, and continue to use it even after citizen protest caused it to bestruck from the Waterfront Plan.