By Matt Youngfrau
FALLSBURG September 27, 2002 With more than 40 percent of the property in the Town of Fallsburg off the tax rolls, many residents have long felt their property taxes are higher than they should be. That situation was worsened recently when Town Assessor Michael Pilmenstein raised assessments substantially and allegedly dealt with those same residents in a rude manner.
Well over 100 people packed the Fallsburg Town Hall in South Fallsburg Tuesday night to lodge their complaints with the town board. With the hall filled to overflowing, some people stood outside, in the town clerk's office, and even in the neighboring police station. For over an hour, they voiced their concerns to the board.
"The assessor raised me over $43,000," commented Hurleyville resident Miranda Behan. "He told me that he doesn't care whose toes he stepped on. He compared what we pay to what people pay in Manhattan. This is not Manhattan. We cannot afford to live here. We want to live here. Do you want us to leave?"
"According to his [Pilmensteins] educated opinion, a rec room is not usable living space," sarcastically remarked Hurleyville resident Patricia Behan. "He has threatened people. Is it legal to threaten people?"
"You need to find a more competent individual," stated Loch Sheldrake resident Connie Lescano. "You can be proactive. You can take a stand. Teach this man what his job is. He is appraising, not assessing."
The town board appeared taken aback. It was the first time the matter was discussed publicly, but some on the board were aware of the situation, as their constituents had contacted them to complain.
"It is good to see so many people here," Town Supervisor Steve Levine said. "[But] the guy is protected under state law. He has a six-year contract. If there is a public outcry, we will get a feeling of what has to be done.
It is an unfair system. It is a stinky system, he acknowledged. The only thing that can be done is if it is taken to court."
"This is the first time we are hearing this [as a full board]," remarked board member Neil Gilberg. (It was pointed out during the meeting that Gilberg's assessment was raised 20 percent.) "We did not instruct him to be rude or callous. We want him to do a fair, equitable job. We will sit down with him and discuss this. There is a process."
"I agree that his tactics are wrong," board member Joseph Perrello remarked. "We do not condone this."
Levine did point out several facts at the meeting. When Pilmenstein took the job two years ago, he had a backlog of two years. He has spent the intervening time trying to catch up.
Levine also provided a breakdown of Fallsburg residents' tax bill. The bill is broken down into four parts: school tax (64.8 percent), town tax (19.1 percent), county tax (15.3 percent), and library tax (.8 percent).
Those in attendance were demanding action right away. They wanted the board to agree to fire Pilmenstein that night. But the board would not agree to it. They said they wanted to discuss it in executive session and set up a meeting with Pilmenstein to get his side of the story. After that, some sort of action would be taken.
"We have to discuss this," Levine said. "We have to meet with him. Give us a chance. We will have an answer at the next meeting."
The day after the meeting, two board members, Arnold Seletsky and Neil Gilberg, contacted the Sullivan County Democrat to further discuss the situation.
"I am tired of the local people getting the short end of the stick," Seletsky stated. "The part-time residents get all the benefits. If it is determined that he [Pilmenstein] has, in any way, been harassing or rude, I will call for him to resign. I am a taxpayer as well, and the people spoke loud and clear last night. I am behind them 100 percent."
"I want him to listen to the tape from last night's meeting," Gilberg said. "Then let him respond to the board. I want to hear his side of it. I also want to see how he got to those assessments."
Pilmenstein was not in attendance at the meeting Tuesday night. However, he did offer his thoughts on the situation when contacted by the Democrat. Pilmenstein stated that he met with Levine and Perrello Thursday morning and listened to the tape of the meeting. They talked about the situation, and discussions will be continuing.
I wasnt there to defend myself, Pilmenstein said. The town gets assessed at 100 percent of the market value. They made that decision in 1991. There is no industry in the town, and 44.5 percent of the land is tax exempt.
I know the problem is not me, Pilmenstein continued. They are looking for a scapegoat. If I leave, what will happen with the next guy? It is not the level, it is the rate I have no control over that. I will not resign.
Pilmenstein did offer his reaction to the tape and explained how he does business.
I have not done anything wrong. For the last two years, my door has always been open. I am willing to sit down with anyone and come to a reasonable conclusion. Mine is not the final say. They can go to grievance and then small claims court.
An update on the situation is expected at the next board meeting on Tuesday, October 8, at the Loch Sheldrake Firehouse.