By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
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By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
Carlos Mackey couldn't believe his ears. As president of the Tenant Council of the Village of Hempstead, Mackey had asked Nassau County for a list of village landlords who protested their property tax bills from 1994-99. Specifically, he wanted to know how many owners of buildings with at least six apartments had gotten money back and how much each had received.
Instead, he got an estimate of the whopping amount the county would charge to produce the statistics he sought in his April 5 request. Mackey said Brian Meyer, the vice chairman of the Board of Assessors, called and told him the public records could cost thousands of dollars enough to put them out of reach of many grassroots activists.
"He said, 'You know it's going to cost you about two thousand dollars.' And I said, 'What?' " Mackey remembers. "It really scared me there for a while. They're trying to discourage us from getting this information. I know the tactics that these people use."
Mackey never got all the figures he wanted. The county eventually released computer printouts listing landlords who had filed protests, but didn't reveal whether they'd received money back. With help from a county attorney, he did manage to wrangle a reduction in the estimated fee and in the end forked over $380.94 for the little he got.
For Mackey, the struggle to uncover any hard facts at all was just another example of how difficult it is to hold the rich and powerful accountable in Nassau County. "After I paid all that money, they still won't tell me how much those people got back," Mackey says. "You got to fight for everything that you get from these people."
What seemed unfair to Mackey was just business as usual at county headquarters. Meyer says the law allows government agencies to charge for copies of documents and for the labor needed to gather statistics. "A lot of people ask for stuff," says Meyer, a GOP stalwart who is paid $75,000 a year. "That's why we ask for money."
But what if an activist like Mackey had been too poor to pay? "Well, then we'd have a problem, wouldn't we?" Meyer says. "I'd say come back when you had the money. You can't make exceptions for people."
'Call Back Next Week.'
Mackey had better luck when he asked village officials for information. They released a sheet, free of charge, showing several owners of rent-stabilized buildings had won hefty settlements on their Hempstead property taxes.
According to the village, mega-landlords including the Metz family pocketed judgments ranging from $53,972 to $301,500 per building for what renters say are some of the worst tenements on Long Island. Hempstead had to borrow $2.5 million in order to make good on the tax rebates, including $25,000 to cover the cost of hiring attorneys and issuing bonds.
It's not clear from the document Mackey received whether the payments to landlords represented a single year's protest or a bundling of several. A call to the village assessor's office yielded few clues.
"There's no records," said a woman who answered the phone. "You'll have to talk to the assessor, and she won't be back until next week."
When Assessor Delphine Chambliss returned to work, she suggested talking to Treasurer Sal Lombardi. A receptionist in that department said Lombardi was away for the week and no one else could provide information. "I have no idea what you're talking about, really," she said. "You can try Assessment, if you want."
Uh, yeah. Thanks.
'Letting the Tenants Live In a Dump.'
Armed with a little information from Hempstead, Mackey had a hunch the same landlords who were hitting pay dirt on their village taxes were also getting big bucks back from the county.
After more than 20 years of helping Hempstead tenants fight for decent living conditions, Mackey says he was galled that landlords were pocketing tax rebates for apartments that were poorly lit and rarely painted. In his time as an activist, he's watched countless renters make do with broken windows, leaky roofs and unreliable heat. The halls he walks are littered with falling plaster and laced by exposed wires. The stairs he climbs are rickety and dotted with cigarette butts dropped in puddles of what looks like rainwater and smells like piss.
Mackey has seen plenty of landlords take people to court for not paying the rent on crummy apartments, and he's seen plenty of people lose security deposits they should have gotten back. But even after all these years, he has never seen a landlord lower the rent after getting a break on taxes.
Mackey expresses particular concern about buildings listed as belonging to James Metz. Tenants say they've seen improvements in Metz apartments since the village stepped up code enforcement efforts last year, but they also say the buildings have a long way to go. "Here we was going to give this man money," Mackey says. "And here this man was letting the tenants live in a dump."
And boy, are we giving the man money. An independent look at county records showed Mackey's hunch was right. The landlords who brought home tens of thousands on their village taxes were cashing in mightily in Mineola.
According to the document given to Mackey, the Village of Hempstead paid back $107,123 on the apartment complex at 299 Jackson Ave., which is listed in county records as belonging to James Metz. In recent years, Metz has turned his empire over to his son, Jimmy, and daughter Alicia, who have continued to file annual protests of their property taxes.
The Metz children are represented by the powerful GOP law firm of Certilman, Balin, Adler & Hyman, and the firm is worth every penny. Each year since 1993, county records show, the Metz family has brought home $49,225 in judgements on the property taxes at 299 Jackson in addition to the money they get back from the village.
The Metzes' judgements on 299 Jackson sound a tad less generous when you consider Hempstead wanted taxes of $27,020 for the property, and the county wanted $142,541. Inordinately high taxes plague property owners throughout Nassau. The county's residential property hasn't been reassessed since 1938, with the result that some people are paying far too little and others far too much. The system is so unfair that 10 percent of all residential property owners appeal their taxes, and the county now struggles under a debt of $818 million it borrowed just to pay the refunds.
Alicia Metz says she sees no reason to lower rents when she gets a judgement on exorbitant taxes. "The tenants don't pay when the taxes go up," she says.
'They Have a Moral Responsibility.'
Thanks to a new law, the village's tenants may soon be paying less, regardless of what the landlords think.
In September, the Hempstead Village Board voted unanimously to join the state's program for granting rent reductions to older people, known as the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption, or SCRIE. Under the new rules, elderly tenants can pay lower monthly amounts than are called for under the rent control guidelines but only if they file an application.
What's more, says ACORN community organizer Ann Sullivan, the SCRIE program entitles all villagers who live in rent-controlled apartments to pay smaller annual increases than called for by the Rent Guidelines Board. "It's a big victory, and we're really excited about it," she says.
The problem, Sullivan says, is that most tenants don't yet know about the program. Some are already signing two-year leases for more money than they're legally required to pay under SCRIE.
Sullivan says she asked Mayor James Garner to hold a press conference to announce the rent breaks, and he "more or less said no." Unless the village lets people know their rights, Sullivan says, hard-won tenant victories could go to waste. "We definitely think the information should be coming from the mayor's office," she says. "They have a moral responsibility to do it."