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Gurdjieff litigation resolved; two sides see it very differently

By Dan Hust
NARROWSBURG — May 4, 2010 — While county officials on Thursday lauded a recent court decision as significant, Tusten Town Attorney Jeffrey Clemente said yesterday that it simply restores a long-running unwritten agreement – as long as the non-profit Gurdjieff Foundation remains willing to adhere to it.
“This decision has statewide implications,” noted County Treasurer Ira Cohen.
Countered Clemente, “The county spent a lot of taxpayers’ money and left the town in a weakened position.”
On Thursday, a unanimous state Supreme Court said Tusten’s five-year agreement with the foundation for payments in lieu of taxes was “not an authorized way to resolve the tax dispute, and it is void.”
The foundation, headquartered in New York City, maintains a 164-acre summer retreat near Narrowsburg, where followers of Russian philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff gather for what is classified as religious and educational instruction, granting it its tax-exempt status in the eyes of the federal government.
For more than a decade, said Clemente, it had voluntarily donated $6,000 annually to the township.
“They felt this was some way to contribute to the town,” he explained.
The county and the Sullivan West school district – never recipients of any of that money – pushed the town assessor to put the foundation’s acreage on the tax rolls.
When Gurdjieff balked, Clemente said town officials decided to not risk a suit they were fairly certain they’d lose.
Instead, the town and foundation worked out a written agreement and upped the donation to $10,000 a year for five years.
The county took the town to court over the matter – and initially lost.
On appeal, however, the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division said the agreement was not valid, as it is not permitted by law “and implicates a potential for abuse.”
The justices did not believe Tusten was acting with “ill intent” but worried that other townships across the state might use these agreements “to commandeer ‘contributions’ from entities that are exempt from real property taxes, or a municipality negotiating an agreement to its benefit at the expense of other taxing jurisdictions.”
Clemente said Tusten doesn’t plan to appeal, but he’s worried that the loss of the written agreement means the town is back to simply relying on the good graces of the Gurdjieff Foundation for the annual donation – which the foundation could legally reduce or withdraw at any time.
“They gave $10,000 this year, and I’m sure they will next year – only now we have no say,” he lamented.
So why not share some of that with Sullivan County and Sullivan West?
“Even if we gave them a $1,000 or $2,000, that would take from us and not change their fiscal situation much,” argued Clemente.
Gurdjieff’s attorney could not be reached for comment.
The county did not challenge the foundation’s tax-exempt status in this go-round, though that could become an issue for litigation in the future.
Cohen, who does not believe the foundation is entitled to its tax-exempt status, has estimated the county could see upwards of $9,000 in taxes – and $22,000 for SW – if the property was taxable.
But even though neither the county nor Sullivan West will recoup any money via this suit, he deemed it a major win.
“The Gurdjieff decision totally vindicates the position the county took in this matter,” Cohen remarked. “It demonstrates the agreement entered into by the town was improper and void.”
Cohen said this could affect other such agreements across the state, though his focus will remain on the Town of Tusten, as its assessor will have to make an annual determination about Gurdjieff’s tax-exempt status.

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