Column: A chillling morning in Rye City Hall

careyIt’s 8 a.m. on a cold Monday, Nov. 25. Five members of the City Council are on the dais, along with the city manager, corporation counsel and city clerk. The two absent council members will be gone in January.

The published agenda announces that the sole business is to be “Authorization for the City Manager to execute, on behalf of the City of Rye, a Payment in Lieu of Tax Agreement between Rye Manor, LLC and the Westchester County Industrial Development Agency.”

It soon turns out there are actually four agreements before the council, not one of which shows the county as a signatory party. I point this out, and am told that county officials are aware that there is no provision for the county to receive any of the PILOT money. The people on the dais dismiss the point, evidently equating county awareness with binding commitment. Not a good idea.

In a lighter vein, after chiding whomever has proofread the documents for showing three separate addresses for the city: One at City Hall, another at Theall Road and a third in Scarsdale, I jokingly request a PILOT for my own property. I say that I, like the for-profit operator of Rye Manor, would like to have my taxes frozen for 32 years at a bargain rate with only minuscule annual increases. This does not amuse the officials looking down on me from their dais.

The new operator of Rye Manor, as of Nov. 26, is a for-profit company called Rye Manor, LLC. The LLC stands for “limited liability company.” It is now in charge of running Rye Manor, and certain restrictions in place concerning its operation as affordable housing are done away with by one of the four agreements the council approves. One of the texts makes clear that removal of the restrictions was dictated by unidentified lenders. Hiding the identity of such influential parties does not generate confidence in the transparency of any transaction.

One of the four agreements purports to grant the property an exemption from all property taxes: City, school district and county. I make the point that real estate tax liability is based on land use and not on dispensations granted by local government. Property used for business purposes cannot be exempt, even if the underlying title is technically in a non-profit. We learned that as long ago as 1960, when Harrison succeeded in taxing land at the airport that was used exclusively by private businesses. Rye followed by taxing a small portion of Playland that was in private use.

I also make the point that, by giving up the city’s right to enforce tax liens in return for an unsecured promise to pay PILOT fees, we are exposing ourselves to the possibility of unenforceable claims against an insolvent Rye Manor, LLC. This apparently falls on deaf ears among those on the dais.

My final request is for a public hearing on the four agreements in their latest form—since they have been changed from the versions distributed by email last week—so that the public has a way to evaluate the final versions. The sotto voce conversations on the dais do not enlighten those in the audience. If there is amplification, it is not turned on. No one up there seems to address remarks to the public, only to each other. Not a good public relations scene.

Who wants to come to council meetings if you won’t know what’s going on? Why not just stay home and watch on TV so you can turn up the volume? Not a bad idea, except that then you have no opportunity to contribute to the discussion.