Sandy Lewis, center, has filed a complaint in court against the town of Essex over the assessed value of two of the six parcels that make up the Lewis Family Farm there.
Essex Supervisor Sharon Boisen confirmed that the town had set aside the money “on the assessor's legal expense line to defend the town in property tax litigation,” adding that “the only case we currently have is with the Lewis Family Farm.”
Salim “Sandy” Lewis filed suit July 27 against the town, claiming that the assessments on two of the six parcels he owns were grossly high, even after seeking relief.
Lewis and his legal counsel, Martina Baillie, did file a pair of grievances about the assessments on two parcels of land: a field crops parcel of 1,111 acres assessed at $6,033,190; and a 5.2-acre family residence assessed at $412,900.
The grievances were both taken into consideration by the town’s zoning board of appeals, which cut the first parcel’s assessment to $4,811,112 while leaving the second parcel’s value the same.
“I think that there was an intent to defraud that does not feel right and, at the end of the day, I’m getting it in my own town,” Lewis said. “No assessor has ever crossed the property line or has been asked to cross the property line. I asked the town to make this right or I was going to have to sue them. When I challenge something, I sue them.”
Lewis said that it was Baillie and another employee, Marco Turco, who questioned him on the assessed values of the parcels, which he had not paid attention to until recently.
“This is where it gets embarrassing for us,” Lewis said. “My wife was just paying the taxes and we never even thought about them. We have made our fair share of mistakes, but that was not our intent. I will plead to incompetence, but I am paying attention now.”
Baillie said that she had a concern over how the new number was reached for the largest parcel of property.
“They couldn’t explain to us how they changed that number,” Baillie said. “Assessors need to explain that. Residential assessments are different than agricultural assessments.”
Lewis said that he was surprised to hear that the town had budgeted the money specifically for this case.
“I think that this is something that the taxpayers should be aware of,” Lewis said. “They are putting this much aside for this case? If they lowered the assessment properly, it would still not cost the town as much as they have budgeted to defend it.”
Lewis added that his total tax bill in 2011 was less than the budgeted amount for legal fees in this case.
“I am one of the biggest taxpayers in this town, but I am also one of the biggest philanthropists,” he said. “If this town’s approach with us survives, then we as a farm will not survive. We can’t survive if the people around want to kill her.”
Both Lewis and Boisen said that they would like to find a way to settle the matter before it goes before Essex County Court Judge Richard Meyer, who has been appointed to oversee the case. Meyer also oversaw Lewis’ case against the Adirondack Park Agency.
“I would always hope that we could come to a mutual agreement before we go into court in any legal matter,” Boisen said. “That’s the best case. It would be great not to need all of the money that has been budgeted for legal expenses.”
“There can be a negotiation and if it comes to a satisfactory concussion and we come to an agreement, then the suit ends,” Lewis said. “We are still in the preparation process and our stuff will be ready by the first or second week in January.”
Lewis said that he hired Donald Fisher to help him appraise the parcels and give him numbers to work with in the suit, stating that he has extensive experience in agricultural appraisals. He also said that he is willing to give the town their findings.
“It’s about having a professional approach,” Lewis said. “You can disagree with numbers, but when you look at the professional approach against another approach, who do you think wins? We will have the best people working on this and I will not seek to influence them.”
“Don is looking at the entire farm operation, including the other four parcels, to make his appraisal,” Baillie said.
Lewis added that he did have numbers in mind that he would see as satisfactory for the parcels.
“I bought the house for $75,000 and not much has changed in it since,” Lewis said. “I do not have an exact number for the other property, but I can sey that it is a lot lower than what it is now.”
Currently, the six parcels total $5,333,512 in assessed value, of which the two disputed parcels are assessed at $5,224,012.
According Essex County Tax History and under the $6,033,190 previous assessed value of the 1,111-acre parcel, Lewis paid $34,094 in 2011 town and county taxes ($30,507 from the larger parcel and $2,922 from the estate), as well as $46,842 in 2010-11 school taxes ($41,612 on the larger parcel, $4,082 on the estate).