March 25, 2011; updated 6:35 p.m. EDT — At a town-hall meeting yesterday, where New York City tax commissioner David Frankel tried to explain the unprecedented triple-digit leap in co-op / condo valuation in northeast Queens, tempers flared, questions went unanswered, the meeting's chairmanship was usurped, and a coalition of co-ops and condos vowed legal action, according to attendees.
"I just found it really surreal," Bob Friedrich, president of both the Glen Oaks Village co-op complex and co-op presidents' group the Presidents Co-op Council, said today of the meeting, held in conjunction with Queens Community Board 7. "It was a sham."
Warren Schreiber, president of the 200-unit Bay Terrace Cooperative Section 1, echoed that characterization. "It was a pre-planned sham," he e-mailed Queens CB7 chairman Gene Kelty this morning. "It's obvious that right from the very beginning, the strategy was to rubberstamp Frankel's presentation and provide the Department of Finance with the CB7 seal of approval."
Since February, Friedrich, Schreiber and others have protested what they feel are unjustifiable valuation increases — and commensurate property-tax increases — in this year's annual Dept. of Finance valuation figures. Co-ops and condo in northeast Queens were hit with valuation increases of up to 146 percent, according to a board-group representative — compared to 6.56 percent overall in the city as 7.98 percent for co-ops and most condos.
Frankel's appearance came in part as his way to address accusations of stonewalling and a lack of transparency on what starting figures the DOF plugged into its formula.
Standing Room Only
The meeting — held at the Union Plaza Care Center nursing home in Flushing, Queens, where Queens CB7 regularly holds it regular meeting on the second Monday of every month — proved problematic from the start.
"Commissioner Frankel told me, 'We're gonna come out and be available to the shareholders, and have [the meeting] at the Community Board 7 facility," says Geoffrey Mazel of Hankin & Mazel, attorney for both the 1,024-unit LeHavre on the Water co-op in Whitestone, Queens, and the Presidents Co-op Council. "When we got there, there were chairs for only 50 people. We saw 60-, 70-, 80-year-old people bringing in chairs from other floors. At least half the room, a couple hundred people, were standing. They knew it would be a big crowd," he says, citing an estimated 450-person turnout for a similar March 10 meeting that Frankel was unable to attend. "Frankel chose the venue," he said.
The commissioner's acting spokesperson, David Miller, says that's not so. "The venue was not chosen by the Dept. of Finance or Commissioner Frankel," he told Habitat.
"Community Board 7 was just the conduit for setting up the meeting," Friedrich says. "That's what Kelty told me on the phone the day before the meeting. Then he declared it a Community Board 7 meeting at the meeting."
The various parties agreed to have CB7 member Arnold Wagner the meeting. Multiple accounts, however, say Kelty, who did respond to requests for comment, took it over in an overbearing and bullying way.
"Gene Kelty was almost a goon up there," says attorney Mazell. "He shut people down. If anybody expressed any sort of anger at any moment, he was all over you. There were two cops there, and at the beginning of the meeting, one guy just wanted to make a comment -- Kelty wouldn't let him and the cops came over to him."
Who Said What
In five-minute opening statements, according to notes taken by attendees, State Senator Toby Anne Stavisky (D-16th Senate District) and Assemblyman Edward C. Braunstein (D-Assembly District 26) discussed new legislation they plan to introduce that would treat co-ops and condos like single-family homes, which have a six percent annual cap. City Councilman Mark Weprin (D-District 23), of the council's co-op/condo caucus, said in calculating valuations for taxes, apartment-owners are treated not as homeowners but as landlords, adding metaphorically, "There's obviously a glitch in the computer."
Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Assembly District 22) and City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-District 19) each concurred, saying that co-ops and condos are being improperly assessed and that this is a bipartisan issue.
The fireworks began when Friedrich -- who says he had to fight for permission to make opening remarks, though this was ostensibly a meeting to hear community concerns — "was one minute over my five-minute opening statement," he says. "I was abruptly stopped by CB7 chairman Kelty" — not the ostensible meeting chair, Wagner -- "and told to sit down. The crowd started to shout him down, to let me speak, and I went on for another minute."
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