May 31, 2006

Reassessment Dispute Sparks Lawsuit

Strolling through the village of Westhampton Beach this Memorial Day weekend, there was no more hotly debated topic heard bandied about on the streets than that of a recent townwide reassessment that many residents felt was unfair, unreasonable, and downright outrageous.

Westhampton Beach Deputy Mayor Tim Laube agrees: On Friday, during a press event held outside O'Susanna on Main Street, Laube and his Hurricane Party running mates, mayoral candidate John Roland and Barbara Ramsay, running for village trustee, announced a lawsuit against Southampton Town.

At the heart of the suit is the burning question of why residential districts of the town have been reassessed while commercial districts have not. Laube, who is running for re-election, believes that this puts an unreasonable tax burden on local homeowners.

Laube, who is filing the suit on behalf of residents who have seen their home and property assessments soar since the 2004 release of the reassessment, has asked that the town pull back the assessment until it comes up with a "fair and equitable plan" to remedy the reassessment effort."

Former Southampton Town Attorney Eileen Powers has been retained by Laube as a consultant for the class action suit, which will be joined by local homeowners.

"Southampton Town has failed its residents," said Laube.

Roland said he had heard from naysayers, including his political opponent in the race for mayor, Conrad Teller, that legal action was unnecessary: "We believe that we should use every weapon in our arsenal to fight for the taxpayers," he said. "Nothing is unnecessary."

Roland maintained that the biggest concern of constituents during this political season has been the hot-button topic of what many feel was a "botched" reassessment.

Other platforms of Roland's campaign continue to be a push for the revitalization of Main Street, impossible without a sewer district. "Even if someone wanted to, they couldn't open up a restaurant right now," he said, because cesspools couldn't handle the strain.

A lawsuit was not the original plan, said Roland. The goal was to ask the town to admit that they'd "screwed up" and rescind the reassessment until a new game plan could be formulated. The reassessment has frightened residents, many of whom are elderly. "The first job of government is to protect the people, not scare everyone," said Roland.

Laube and Roland suggested that one solution might be for Westhampton Beach to conduct its own reassessment.

"The way they did this was unfair," said Roland. "It was broken, and we're just asking them to fix it to reassess the reassessment."

Ramsay agreed: "They totally missed the boat on this," she said. Although she is a business owner, Ramsay is concerned about the larger issues of how the reassessment would affect homeowners and exacerbate problems such as the lack of affordable housing in the village.

"Someone's got to stand up for the people and say 'no,'" she said. "You did a bad job, and it's time to move on to Plan B."

Sue Wirick, a Westhampton Beach homeowner, said that her home was reassessed for a quarter of a million more than its actual value. She just had her home reappraised, she said, calling the town's reassessment "completely irrational," with "no checks and balances."

Teller, meanwhile, who was on hand for the press event, pointed out a past incident when Westhampton Dune filed a class action lawsuit against the town and lost, as did Southampton Village after filing an Article 78. "As far as I'm concerned, this is no more than political posturing for the vote," he said.

Southampton Town Supervisor Skip Heaney agreed. The supervisor said that while he hasn't yet seen it, he was apprised by Laube of the impending lawsuit before it was filed. "I'm very confident about the town's position regarding the reassessment update and the constitutional approach that was used," he said. "This has much more to do with political theater than with political leadership."

Laube said there is no timetable for the suit, which Ramsay said is still "in its infancy."

But, added Roland, "Is there really a timetable when you're fighting for taxpayers' rights? As far as I'm concerned, I will fight 24 hours a day, every day of the week, to protect those rights."

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