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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 30, 2008

Ethical dilemma?
Walgreens assessment still an issue

By Saranac Hale Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Richard Sherwood is the latest town official to come under the scrutiny of the town board’s Republican duo.

“There is a serious ethical issue involving Guilderland Town Attorney Richard Sherwood and the town’s assessment process,” writes Councilman Mark Grimm in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week.

In June, the board voted 3 to 2, along party lines, to reduce the assessment for Walgreens by about half-a-million dollars. “Sherwood said, ‘This is what you should do on the deal,’” Redlich said in June of the town attorney’s advice to the board before the vote, which took place in executive session.  (Go to www.altamontenterprise.com and click on “archives” for June 26 in Guilderland for full coverage.)

“We have now learned that Mr. Sherwood is connected with the property owner,” Redlich wrote in a letter, dated Oct. 28, to Supervisor Kenneth Runion.

“It’s ridiculous,” Sherwood said of the accusation that he has a conflict of interest.  “There is no conflict.”

Walgreens is located at the intersection of routes 155 and 20 on property owned by 155 & 20 of Albany LP, said Karen VanWagenen, of the town assessor’s office.  According to papers from the Albany County Clerk’s Office, that firm shares an address with Schuyler Companies, a firm for which Kenneth Segel serves as the chief executive officer. 

Segel was a founding partner of the Segel, Goldman, Mazzotta & Siegel, P.C. law firm, said managing partner, Thomas Mazzotta, but he retired in March of 2005.  Sherwood was an associate with that firm for about five years, starting in 1991, he said.  Both Sherwood and Segel are now of counsel for the firm.  Lawyers with that kind of affiliation to a firm can do a varying degree of work; in Segel’s case, Mazzotta said, he’s listed as being of counsel almost entirely to keep his name affiliated with the firm and to retain clients. 

“In the last three-and-a-half years, he might have done about five hours worth of work,” Mazzotta said of Segel.

Sherwood sees Segel on an infrequent basis, he said, sometimes at a charity event or on the golf course.  Segel is currently in Israel and could not be reached for comment.

Although Segel oversees the company that owns the Guilderland parcel, it is Walgreens that gets the tax bill, VanWagenen said.

Walgreens has a triple net lease on the property, which is very common in commercial real estate, Sherwood said.  In a triple net lease, the company leasing the property — Walgreens, in this case — pays all of the costs associated with the property, including taxes, insurance, and upkeep, he said. 

“The tenant is responsible for paying the taxes,” Sherwood said, and Walgreens petitioned for a reduction in the town’s assessment, not Schuyler or 155 & 20.

The drugstore was represented by Bruce Stavitsky, Sherwood said.  Stavitsky could not be reached for comment yesterday, but a synopsis of his expertise on his firm’s website says, “Because of his thorough preparedness, there is no question in the mind of the adversary that Mr. Stavitsky knows the property, understands what it is worth, and knows how to convince the court that his client deserves tax assessment relief.”

“That reduction costs the Guilderland School District alone over $10,000 a year in lost revenue,” Grimm wrote, referring the $540,500 assessment reduction and its effect on school tax revenue.

“It is my understanding that that the School District received notice of the Walgreens assessment challenge and chose not to appear in this proceeding,” Supervisor Kenneth Runion wrote on Oct. 29 to Neil Sanders, the assistant superintendent for business in the Guilderland School District.  Sanders could not be reached for comment yesterday. 

The letter goes on to ask if the school would have any interest in pursuing litigation, after quoting a $4,000 court certified appraisal estimate that would be required.  “Is the school district interested in sharing the cost associated with the appraisal, attorney’s fees and other expenses?” asks Runion.

The total loss to the town, including town tax, highway tax, and water tax, as calculated by Runion, is $1,226.80.  In an Oct. 28 letter to Redlich, Runion pointed out that expenses to fight Walgreens would outweigh the tax gain.

In light of the conflict-of-interest accusation against Sherwood, Runion has asked the town’s ethics committee for an opinion.  “I’m welcoming their review,” Sherwood said.  He says that the accusation is political retaliation from Redlich, a lawyer, who has had differences of opinion with town officials about his firm’s right to practice law in Guilderland Town Court since he took his seat on the town board in January. 

Sherwood named several town officials — Runion, former town assessor Carol Wysomski, and police Chief Carol Lawlor — who have had differences with the Republican newcomers and said, “I’m in good company.  It was my turn on the wheel.”

Redlich has asked that an agenda item be added to the Nov. 6 meeting schedule so that the board can discuss the Walgreens assessment.  Sherwood didn’t provide the file on the assessment agreement for the board’s review in June, Redlich said, and he’d like to see it. 

“I know tax assessment litigation,” Redlich said in June.  “There’s no harm in giving me time to look at it.”

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