Harrietstown settles tax assessment suit

SARANAC LAKE – The Harrietstown town board agreed Thursday to settle a long-running legal battle over the property tax assessment of a trio of waterfront parcels on Upper St. Regis Lake.

The decision means the town, the Saranac Lake Central School District and Franklin County will have to refund a combined $100,000 in property taxes they collected on the parcels dating back to 2009.

In 2006, the Rhoads family properties were assessed at a combined $5.5 million. Town Assessor Doug Tichenor told the board Thursday night that he was contacted by the properties’ owner in 2008, not long after he was hired by the town, requesting a reduction. Tichenor said he made no changes to the properties’ value at the time, as a townwide revaluation was planned in 2010.

In 2009, Tichenor said the Rhoads family submitted an appraisal that listed the aggregate value of the three properties at $2.1 million.

“I felt this figure was not representative of the property value and made no adjustments,” he said.

In 2010, the Rhoads family filed a complaint with the town’s Board of Assessment Review and, subsequently, an Article 7 lawsuit. That year, Tichenor reduced the total value of the three properties to $3.8 million in the town’s final assessment roll. The parcels have been valued at the same amount each year since then, but “the property owner has felt this value is unacceptable and continued on with the lawsuit,” Tichenor said.

Tichenor said it’s finally reached the point where the town has to settle the dispute or go to trial. He said the absolute lowest value he’d give the properties is $2.55 million, a figure he said the Rhoads family is satisfied with. However, Tichenor noted that the properties are currently on the market with a local real estate agent for $7 million.

“Though I feel my value of $3.8 million is representative of the value of the property, going to trial for this will cost the town a great deal more than the tax rebate liability for all the years,” Tichenor said. “Just to get an appraisal for the town’s side of it would be about $6,000, then the court costs, then the attorney costs.”

If the board agreed to settle at $2.55 million, Tichenor said, the town would have to refund the Rhoads family $16,055 in taxes it collected on the property for the years 2009 to 2013. The county would have to pay back $24,503 and the school district $60,061.

Councilman Ron Keough asked if the town should contact the school district and the county and ask if they would share in the cost of going to trial. But town officials said neither the county nor the school district has provided any financial assistance when asked to do so in prior assessment disputes.

“There will be no help forthcoming from either the school district or the county in court costs,” Tichenor told the board.

Town Attorney James Maher said the lawyer who handles assessment disputes like this for the town, David Murphy of Albany-based Hacker & Murphy, is recommending the town board settle the matter.

Town board members reluctantly agreed to take that advice. If they went to trial, Councilman Barry DeFuria said the town’s expenses could end up being a lot more than the $16,000 the town will pay to settle.

“It’s time to end it,” he said.

The vote to settle the Rhoads family case was unanimous.

Tichenor told the board that this was one of three remaining property assessment lawsuits against the town out of an original list of 16. He said the other two challenges, brought by GU Markets and Rite Aid, have recently been discontinued.

“Those have been pending since ’06, and I was greatly relieved on that,” Tichenor said. “Settling this, with those gone, we have no more lawsuits against the town for assessments, until May when it all starts up again. I don’t see anything coming out of the woodwork, but you never know.”

Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.