Ogdensburg sued over charter change

St. Lawrence County filed a lawsuit Thursday over a change to the Ogdensburg City Charter over the collection of property taxes. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

CANTON — A lawsuit was filed Thursday in state Supreme Court by St. Lawrence County and its treasurer, seeking an order to have the city of Ogdensburg stop the process of having the county make the city and city school district whole on unpaid taxes. The lawsuit claims the action is illegal.

On Sept. 27, the Ogdensburg City Council unanimously voted to change the City Charter to make it so the city would stop collecting county property tax on behalf of the county and make the county responsible for the enforcement of unpaid delinquent taxes on behalf of the city, as well as making the city and city school district whole on unpaid taxes.

On Thursday, St. Lawrence County and Treasurer Renee M. Cole filed the lawsuit, stating the actions of the city by changing its charter “is not in accordance with New York State Municipal Home Rule Law 10(5) or the New York State Real Property Tax Law or the New York State Constitution Article IX(10)(d) and impairs the rights of the County of St. Lawrence and the County Treasurer for the County of St. Lawrence.”

The lawsuit seeks an order from Judge Mary M. Farley requiring the immediate rescission of those portions of the challenged local law that would “force St. Lawrence County to re-levy city real property tax delinquencies remitted by warrant to St. Lawrence County and which seeks to force the St. Lawrence County Treasurer to act as the tax enforcing officer for the City of Ogdensburg and the Ogdensburg City School District.”

It also calls for an order requiring the city cease any and all activities regarding obligations of the county to re-levy any funds to the city or city school district; a preliminary injunction and restraining order to “avoid irreparable harm” until the court is able to arrive at a final determination; as well as awarding the county reasonable fees, costs and expenses.

On Thursday evening, City Manager Stephen P. Jellie released a statement blasting the lawsuit stating that the county is not willing to help the city during a tough financial time and instead contributes to the city’s situation.

“Today (Thursday), without notice or formal opportunity to resolve the matter, St. Lawrence County and its Treasurer, Renee Cole, needlessly filed a lawsuit to block the City of Ogdensburg from taking further action to save the City from financial ruin,” Mr. Jellie wrote. “For months the County, under the direction of Legislators Joseph Lightfoot and Kevin Acres, have impeded and forestalled the City’s every effort to streamline local government, remove redundancy and reduce the local tax burden placed on businesses and residents. The action taken today, just 10 days after the announcement of the closure of the Ogdensburg Correctional Facility demonstrates further that the County is not committed to supporting the survival of the only city in the county, but rather they intend to contribute to its financial challenges.”

Mr. Jellie called out Ms. Cole, County Administrator Ruth A. Doyle and County Attorney Stephen D. Button for a lack of cooperation and willingness to negotiate with the city and cited a small number of meetings and emails between the entities as proof that the negotiations regarding tax collections and making the city whole on unpaid taxes were without merit.

“Once again the City must accept that County Attorney and County Administrator will never have authority from Mr. Lightfoot or Mr. Acres to actually negotiate amicable solutions but rather they desire to have their surrogates provide the appearance they are negotiating while plotting hostile actions like surprise lawsuits and restraining orders,” Mr. Jellie stated.

When reached for comment, Mr. Button said that attempts were made, but were unsuccessful and that the lawsuit was warranted because the actions by the city were not in accordance with state statutes regarding real property law.

“The county does not routinely engage in fighting its battles in court of public opinion, but rather where needed in courts of law,” Mr. Button said. “The county disagrees with the characterization of the activities that have been engaged in by the city and we will continue to try to abide by both New York State statutes as well as the New York State Constitution in fulfilling our obligation to not only the citizens of the towns and villages of the county but the city and the citizens there, who right now need our support and our assistance to continue to maintain a legal real property tax collection and enforcement system.”

Mr. Button said that a copy of the application for the injunction was sent to the city and was standard procedure. Mr. Jellie argued that the court told Mr. Button to send it to Coughlin & Gerhart LLP, the firm representing the city.

“The City is disappointed at the underhanded attempts by the County Attorney, likely at the direction of his superiors, to use such shameless and cowardly tactics to prevent the City from defending itself and to advance their agenda of financial superiority over all local government,” Mr. Jellie wrote.

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