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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 16, 2006

Reval: Average home increases 80 percent

By Holly Grosch

NEW SCOTLAND — Residents across town opened up their mail on Monday to discover their property is worth substantially more. Town-wide the residential parcels, 3,047 of them, had an assessed value increase of 80 percent over last year.

Half of the residential parcels in New Scotland are projected to have a tax increase of more than 10 percent.

"Everybody up here is protesting. It’s outrageous," Sarah Kavanaugh from Wolf Hill told The Enterprise on Monday. "Everyone is hysterical....Where on earth are they coming up with these values"" she asked. The assessment staff must be "out of their minds...I can’t even comprehend," Kavanaugh said.

Her assessment went from $151,000 to $448,000, she said, a change of 196 percent.

Town-wide for all parcels including utility, farm, residential and commercial the assessed value change was 71 percent.

Reassessment is done to bring every parcel up to 100 percent of marketvalue.

The highest values for residential parcels in New Scotland are about $2 million, Nooney said, and the lowest assessed residential parcels with a livable house is $56,700.

Bob Kitchen, a consultant hired by the town to oversee the revaluations told The Enterprise that, after hearings, he believes the final change in assessed values between 2005 and 2006 will be around 68 percent.

Utility parcels had the smallest change in value, 17 percent, farmland changed by 74 percent, vacant land by 100 percent, commercial parcels by 63 percent, and residential parcels by 80 percent.

A contributing factor into why vacant-land assessed value had increased at a greater rate then residential could be because of an increased demand in the rural market for vacant land between now and 1997, when the last reassessment was completed, more so than the residential demand, said the town’s assessor, Julie Nooney.

For assessment purposes, Wolf Hill, where Kavanaugh lives is located in the neighborhood code labeled "Central Rural." This area of town has an assessed value change of 70 percent. The average assessed value in this neighborhood in 2005 was $220,120 and is now $373,400.

The thing that Kavanaugh is most shocked about is that the public has been told that reassessment is done to bring properties up to the 100-percent of real market value. If she could sell her home for almost half-a-million dollars as the new assessment suggests than she would sell it in a heartbeat, she said, but she knows that’s not true.

She and her husband built their house together, Kavanaugh said, "It’s nothing fancy." There’s no public water or sewer service, she said. While her home is in the Voorheesville School District her road washed away three times last year, she said. People don’t want to drive way out here to live, she said.

She understands that, in order to protest her new value, she has to compare her house to others around her. "But they’re all wrong," she said of the new assessments. How is she supposed to find a comparison when the whole baseline is off, Kavanaugh asked.

The assessing process

Nooney, the town assessor, late Tuesday evening in her office, slowly went through the numbers to explain the whole process. In a mock informal hearing, she used Supervisor Ed Clark and Councilman Richard Reilly’s properties as examples.

Reassessments are only based on actual sales of comparable houses — comparable in size, style, and neighborhood, she said. In every neighborhood in town, Nooney was able to find actual sales to compare to, no less than three years old, she said.

It’s not comparing assessed value with assessed value, but coming up with an assessment value through sales, Nooney said.

She uses computer programs to help her calculate but a lot of the assessment depends on her knowledge of the market, Nooney said.

For example, in the computer, Nooney will for a particular house give so much weight to neighborhood and so much weight to building style through allotting points.

She hopes to do reassessments at least every three years to preserve equity.

"I can’t predict what somebody is going to sell a house for," Nooney said, but she can "anticipate what a property can bring in an open market."

She’s aware that some people are seeing on their disclosure notices that their houses are worth twice as much as they thought.

People don’t understand the real-estate market right now, Nooney said.

For Clark and Reilly’s property Nooney printed out their disclosure notices and also the four comparables, listed in columns on one sheet. The houses looked similar in their photographs, were from the same neighborhood, and they were similar in design and size.

Reilly’s home on Tervino Lane in the village had been assessed last year at $67,000 and now has an assessed value of $200,000. Three of Reilly’s comparables were residences on Pleasant Street. His home was built in 1880 and those he was compared to were built the same year or in 1900. Two of the comparable houses sold in 2003 — one for $110,000 and the other for $175,000.

Then, Nooney explained, she calculates a time-adjusted sale price, which brought these sale prices up to $134,800 and $212,000. Also, value is adjusted if one of the houses that it is being compared to has an extra bathroom or one less bedroom, she said; these types of additions and subtractions are made.

Informal hearings

The assessing department is now scheduling appointments to review one-on-one with individuals their assessments, Nooney said. These informal hearings will be held from Feb. 21. through March 10.

The new assessments are based on only actual sales, not what people think their property will sell for, Nooney said. She really wants to encourage people to schedule an appointment so the assessment staff can show landowners where their numbers came from. There is no easy formula or one calculation, she said.

Kavanaugh said that she has two separate parcels, one with her house and another with acreage. In total she has 24.79 acres, but there is a gorge on 15 acres of it, she said, which is not developable.

Nooney said topographic issues with a property would be a factor in assessment, and that people should bring these kinds of concerns to the assessing department’s attention during the informal hearings.

An informal hearing is not only for residents to learn where their numbers came from, but also is an opportunity for them to learn how to challenge their assessment, Nooney said. Each resident will be allotted at least 15 minutes of one-on-one time to look over the comparables used, review the property inventory data, and submit supporting evidence of an error or need for assessment adjustment.

"I’m not perfect by any means," Nooney said. A landowner most certainly can bring to her attention something she doesn’t know, especially since she was not able to walk the grounds of every property, she said.

Apples and oranges

Kavanaugh said that she called the Weathersfield development and inquired how much a house would cost and was told $449,000, she said. She knows her panel house with formica countertops, no deck, built by themselves from a kit, is not worth the same as the nice, upscale, newer homes in Weathersfield, she said.

People have to be careful not to compare apples with oranges, Nooney said.

The town has posted property assessments with pictures and inventory list on its website so people can look up what their neighbor’s assessments are and find similar comparable houses.

Also on-line, Nooney has posted the list of sales she used from 2002 through 2006, sorted by date and neighborhood.

Reports are also available at the public libraries and Town Hall.

All in the neighborhood

The assessment value change within the village of Voorheesville was 73 percent. The assessment value of parcels in the town outside of the village changed by 83 percent.

The Feura Bush area saw one of the greatest changes, of 91 percent. In 2005, the average assessed value of Feura Bush property had been $89,370 and it is now $170,390.

The Central Rural neighborhood saw a 91-percent change as well. The Central Rural neighborhood includes Game Farm Road, Stove Pipe Road, and Upper Flat Rock Road.

The neighborhoods that saw a smaller change in value included village side streets, at 71 percent, and the neighborhood coded as Upper Development, at 68 percent. Some streets in Upper Development are Claremont, Crescent, and Forest, moving from an assessed value of $292,670 to $490,520.

The average parcel in Salem Hills was assessed at $120,990 in 2005 and now is assessed at $214,860, a change of 78 percent.

Residents ideas of moderate-income housing, middle-class housing, and high-end housing in New Scotland, will have to be adjusted if the assessments are accurate. It now looks like the developers that have come before the town with proposals over the last year were more on the mark when they asserted that moderate priced housing is $200,000.

Nooney went through the new numbers for neighborhoods in a PowerPoint presentation before the town board last week.

Councilman Reilly asked why homes in the Voorheesville School District had increased by 77 percent in value while houses in the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk District had increased 85 percent. Nooney said one of the reasons could be because there had been more new construction in Voorheesville so some properties were assessed more recently and, as a result, were closer to the 100 percent market value. There could have been less activity in Ravena - Coeymans - Selkirk School District in southern New Scotland, so property there had to make a larger jump from 1997 numbers to today’s, she said, in order to be brought up to their full market value.


After a reassessment tax rates change. A tax rate is calculated by dividing the money to be raised for a budget by the total taxable assessment base. The total taxable assessment base for New Scotland increased from $557.5 million to $953.3 million.

So, while budgets from the town, schools, and county tend to go up a little each year, the number the levy is going to be divided by has increased by 71 percent, which means overall the tax rate will actually go down per 1,000 of assessed value. Based on current budget numbers, the town’s assessing department has calculated what the new tax rates would be. For the town outside of the village, the latest tax rate is $1.61, and, if the budget stays the same, the new rate to be applied per every 1,000 of assessed value will be .96 cents.

The reassessment ensures that the distribution of property taxes is fair, Nooney has said. The property owners who have been paying more than their fair share will see a reduction, while those who have been paying only a part of their share, although they may not have known it, will now be paying more in taxes.

For the Voorheesville School District, based on this year’s budget, the tax rate in New Scotland has been $26.18 per 1,000 of assessed value, Nooney said, and would now become $15.68 assuming the budget stays the same.

In computing the tax rates for the comparisons on the disclosure notices, the new tax base was lowered about 2 percent to reflect a more accurate assessed value change, anticipating reductions after hearings, Kitchen said.

Since the residential class of parcels increased by 80 percent, which is larger than the town average, some of the town’s taxes will be shifting from classes like utilities with an average change less than 71 percent to the residential class, Kitchen said.

When looking at 2,893 residential parcels, Kitchen wrote in an e-mail, 35.6 percent (1,062) have had a tax change of between plus- or minus-10 percent; 14.4 percent (429) have a tax decrease greater than minus-10 percent, and 50 percent (1,492) parcels show an increase in taxes of more than plus-10 percent.

In wake of audit, Winchell on leave

By Holly Grosch

VOORHEESVILLE — The beleaguered Voorheesville School District has placed its assistant superintendent for business, Sarita Winchell, on administrative leave while the state comptroller completes his audit.

Comptroller Alan Hevesi claimed to have uncovered corruption, stating the former superintendent and former assistant superintendent made improper payments to themselves, totaling $216,000. They are accused of collecting inappropriate payments in relation to personal leave, sick days, vacation and other benefits.

The district does not want to foster any "allegations of impeding the investigation," school board President Joseph Pofit said at Monday’s board meeting. Winchell was placed on leave to protect both her and the district, Pofit said.

The assistant superintendent of business is a "very critical position" that is accountable for management of the business office, Pofit said.

"Some transactions...the chain of command and the writing of checks can best be reviewed without the manager of the business office being present," Pofit said.

Hevesi estimated last month the Voorheesville audit would take another three months to complete.

Following school-district scandals on Long Island, the state comptroller has reinstated school audits after a 25-year hiatus.

The comptroller’s auditors first became suspicious this summer when then-Superintendent Alan McCartney was asked to stay on and work for two additional weeks beyond his retirement to help with the transition to a new superintendent, and then McCartney immediately collected reimbursement for an additional 35 days of vacation time, as if he had worked for a another full year, Pofit said; the comptroller’s office alerted the board to the payment.

Marturano, the retired assistant superintendent for business, has maintained his and McCartney’s innocence. Marturano insists he was paid only what his contract allowed. McCartney has not been reachable.

The Albany County District Attorney’s Office is investigating the matter; no charges have been filed.

The school district is not aware of any serious wrongdoing by others, Pofit said.

The board does believe in innocent until proven guilty Pofit said, responding to a Feb. 2 Enterprise editorial, "Rush to Judgment," and the board will do everything in its power to recoup all the public funds, he said. The district has filed lawsuits against both McCartney and Marturano.

In the meantime the board of education will not "neglect the mandate that we have," Pofit said. "The focus is on the education of the kids."

Winchell did not return phone calls from The Enterprise this week.

Waiting on edge

It could become very easy to mistake this as a "witch hunt," Portia Hubert, a Voorheesville resident who works for the district, warned the board at its meeting Monday. "It’s bordering on that now," she said. People are waiting to see who or what will be next, she said.

"Sarita she’s a great employee; people are going to start bailing," Bob Burns, another Voorheesville resident, told the board as television news cameras rolled.

This was the first regularly-scheduled school board meeting since the press conference on January 24 where Hevesi accused McCartney and Marturano of wrongdoing and Pofit expressed outrage on behalf of the school board. The board Monday spoke before an auditorium full of residents.

Things seem very secretive now; it seems that there is a great deal the public is not aware of, Hubert said.

Margaret Flanders, another district resident, asked school board member Richard Brackett what he meant when she overheard him saying to a friend directly before the meeting: "We got three, one more to go." After a long pause Brackett, said he did not remember saying this and was confused by what she was talking about.

Veteran school board member James Coffin said that, while Hevesi had been very open with the district at first about his audit findings, now the state’s objective is to finish the audit.

"At this point, we don’t know what he has found," Coffin said. "We might not know all of what he has found." The board has laid out everything that it can, "We want to shed light on this whole thing," Coffin said.

The district still has not released the employment contracts of McCartney or Marturano to The Enterprise, although Robert Freeman, the executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government continues to say that they are a matter of public record.

It’s an unsettling time, Coffin told the crowd. Employees who work in the business office are being bombarded with questions. "We can’t be more open...We don’t know more," Coffin said.

"We are just going to deal with everything that comes up...We are not looking to fix blame," he said. "Our next job is to rebuild the trust," Coffin said.

Pofit said on Tuesday night that since only a handful of residents spoke at Monday’s meeting, he interprets that to mean the community supports the board.

"We are thankful for people’s support at this point," Pofit said.

It can be frustrating at times that the school cannot disclose some information because it is in litigation, Pofit said.

"I think how the board handles all these issues will affect the voting on the budget," Hubert said. Voorheesville has a spotty history of passing school budgets and this year the town of New Scotland has reassessed properties, with massive increases overall.

Hubert said she has full confidence in the board to put together a realistic budget, and advised the board that it is very important to show the community that they are credible.

"How can you point fingers here and there and not at yourself"" Bob Burns asked the board. He asked the board and particularly Pofit if, in retrospect, he would have done anything differently on the day of the press conference.

Coffin said that nobody intentionally said that someone is guilty; the board laid out what the allegations were and moved as quickly as possible.

The board was very upset and had to take action, Pofit said, and with the advice of legal counsel and the comptroller’s staff, it moved quickly. The district filed its lawsuit against McCartney and Marturano the same day as the press conference. If the board hadn’t moved quickly, it would have been criticized and now it is being criticized for moving too fast, Pofit said. "Your damned if you do and your dammed if you don’t," he said.

The board was stunned, Coffin said, and the members have tried their hardest. This is the first time that any of the board members have had to go through anything like this. "The only thing I can assure you...We are doing the best we can," Coffin said.

Burns said since he read in The Enterprise that Marturano adamantly denies the allegations against him, Burns asked the board if Marturano would have legal recourse for slander.

Board member Kevin Kroencke responded that he didn’t know, but, while the comptroller is not a court of law, the state office has said that $216,000 was improperly paid.

Board member David Gibson said that the comptroller came to the board and said that there were some problems and the school board then contracted out its own internal investigation, and came to conclusions which were then also reaffirmed by the comptroller’s findings.

The comptroller has a plan to audit all school districts across the state over the next five years. Voorheesville was randomly chosen to be the first in Albany County, and it is one of seven in the Capital Region.

When Hevesi’s five-point plan was introduced in the fall of 2004, area school business officials were quoted in The Enterprise reacting to the new requirements.

At that time, Voorheesville did not have an auditing committee, board members did not receive financial training, and the district had contracted with the same outside auditing firm for 10 years, Winchell said. She was, at that time, open to reform.

"It’s a good start to uniformly change things in business offices across the state," Winchell said. She said she considered the state audits to be "definitely necessary" because auditing "promotes confidence" from the public.

The thing that safeguards against fraud the most, Winchell said at the time, is good internal controls.

"You guys have to be held accountable," Burns told the school board Monday night. The board had approved some of the payments in compensation for unused sick time, and had incorporated an additional $12,000 into McCartney’s salary for the last three years of employment, to pay for back time, The Enterprise reported earlier. The board now says is was purposely manipulated and deceived by McCartney into believing he was entitled to this money while he actually was not.

"We can’t say we weren’t part of the process," Coffin responded.

Gibson said he would have expected the 10-year auditor to find more, and that the board agrees in hindsight there should have been better separation of duties.

The school district is now implementing the recommendation made by Betty Cure, contracted from the New York State School Boards’ Association Advisory Solutions to review all the functions of the business office.

A Voorheesville resident asked the board Monday if, without the state audit, it would have ever found out, about administrators’ improperly collecting money.

"Probably...eventually," Pofit said.

Toritto said it makes him ask, "Is there too much money in the budget if $216,000 can just disappear into thin air""

Pofit reminded everyone that Hevesi said the money was allocated over a number of years—16 for McCartney and 11 for Marturano—and often in the form of small handwritten checks.

Proper actions"

Considering the board’s previous decisions and public perception, Valerie Glover brought up a controversy from 2004, when Robert Baron, then president of the school board, cast the deciding vote to appoint his wife to a position in the school’s business office. The Enterprise at the time wrote about the ethical questions raised by the vote.

Pofit said this week that the board had the matter reviewed at that time and has also requested in recent months another opinion from another attorney and both times it was determined that this was not illegal. But, Pofit said, the board has now come to the conclusion that Baron would have made a better choice to recuse himself from the vote. This ultimately would have meant a tie in votes and Deborah Baron would not have been hired as the district’s tax collector.

Pofit told The Enterprise on Tuesday that the board had recently acquired a new legal opinion because questions about that action had come up, and along with the auditing process, the board is checking into anything questionable. Pofit said, while it probably would have been best if Baron had recused himself, it was still his personal choice.

Baron did not return a phone call from The Enterprise this week for comment.

Quelling recent rumors, Pofit said Baron was never paid by the school as a consultant during the district’s multi-million dollar expansion project.

Baron was the board’s representative on the building committee, who chose to oversee the building project as a board member; he worked strictly as a volunteer and was not paid, Pofit said.

Baron is an outstanding citizen, Pofit said, who has had unquestionable dedication to the district as he volunteered many hours overseeing the building project, where his extensive expertise was much appreciated.

Restructuring side-bar

By Holly Grosch

VOORHEESVILLE — In the wake of a critical state audit, which is still ongoing, the Voorheesville School District is reorganizing its business office.

Both the school board president, Joseph Pofit, and the current superintendent, Linda Langevin, said that no other business office employees besides the assistant superintendent, Sarita Winchell, have been placed on leave or resigned. But there has been some redistribution of duties and job titles, they said, and a few part-time consultants have been hired.

While Winchell is on paid leave, the district has independently contracted with Gordon Durnford to be the acting assistant superintendent for business.

A draft of next year’s budget shows Winchell’s salary was proposed to be $62,250. Durnford is receiving $350 per day in compensation.

Langevin said that Durnford, who has 30 years of experience as a school business administrator, works for Voorheesville four days a week. For 17 years, he was the business administrator for the Coxsackie-Athens School District; he also worked for 12 years for Scotia-Glenville school, and he has worked as an interim assistant superintendent for business for Mohonasen.

Pofit said that Voorheesville needed an interim assistant superintendent right away and Durnford is well-known professionally in the Capital Region. He came highly recommended from the New York State School Boards Association, for which he has recently been a contract consultant.

Both Langevin and Pofit said that Durnford has been doing an excellent job. He was appointed by the school board on Jan. 30. Langevin said that she doesn’t know at this point how long he’ll work for Voorheesville.

Durnford emphasized to The Enterprise that he is not considered an employee of the district. He has his own health insurance coverage, he said.

Also, the district contracted on Jan. 30 with Henry Binzer, an accountant who used to be the head auditor for the State Education Department, Langevin told The Enterprise Monday night. His job is to implement the internal control recommended by Betty Cure of NYSSBA’s Advisory Solutions.

Binzer is being paid a set fee not to exceed $3,000.

Cure had been contracted by the district from the end of September until December to review the functions of the business office. She was brought in after the comptroller noted problems Langevin said this week.

Her contract for $7,500 to do a complete analysis of the district’s financial procedures and practices was approved by the board in November. At that time, when Pofit was asked why the district was paying to do a similar review to the state’s, , he stated the district hired Cure because it wanted an independent evaluation and validation.

"We were impressed with the business administrator," Cure’s report says of Winchell. "She has a good technical background of every facet of the business operation and has developed a strong working relationship with the staff."

Cure then went on in her executive summary to offer about 69 recommendations.

One was to appoint a person other than the payroll clerk to act as deputy treasurer, which the board did in December.

Cure also recommended the district hire an internal claims auditor who is not an employee of the district. At the time of her review, the internal claims auditor was also the tax collector and had been assigned other clerical duties in the business office.

Cure could not find board of education resolutions approving all employee salaries and hourly rates, the report says.

Someone other than the payroll clerk should enter salary data to be used for payroll, she recommended.

The payroll clerk should not have sole authority to make payroll changes, the report reads. The payroll clerk had been calculating all the prorated salaries and their payroll changes.

The district may wish to explore the possibility of incorporating accumulated leave days into the payroll computer program so accumulated leave will be printed on paycheck stubs; this would reduce the risk of overpaying employees, the report states.

Cure did not find individual employment contracts detailed in board of education minutes or appended to the minutes. All details of employment contracts should be made part of the minutes, Cure’s report states.

New auditor

A new internal claims auditor was appointed on Jan. 9 by the board. James McAssey started his part-time job on Jan. 17; it pays $14 per hour. He reviews checks and invoices and then reports directly to the board.

McAssey had been a bank executive for many years and is highly qualified, Pofit told The Enterprise. After McAssey retired from banking, he became a part-time bus driver for the Voorheesville School District, Pofit said. The board was lucky to have someone in the district so highly qualified, and he works outside of the business office as required by the comptroller’s state-mandated financial oversight plan, Pofit said.

Now the district is looking to hire an internal auditor, who will basically do whatever the board want him or her to do, Pofit said. This will include carrying out special studies, analyzing trends, reviewing payroll, and looking over vendor contracts, Pofit said. It’s not a full-time position and has to be done by a certified accountant or firm.

In the request for proposals for internal audit services, it states that this auditor will submit a formal report to the board no less than four times a year.

Some of the listed auditor’s tasks are to: perform a risk assessment of the district, identify internal control weaknesses, investigate alleged fraud, and work with the district’s independent auditor.

The board hopes to appoint the internal auditor in April.

By state law, all New York school districts must have an internal auditor in place by July 1.

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