A recent decision provides greater protection against removal of assessors. On December 3, 2015, the Third Department in Rubeor v. Town of Wright addressed an issue of first impression: can a member of a coordinated assessment program (“CAP”) opt out before the expiration of the assessor’s term?
The Third Department concluded that, although statutorily a municipality may opt out of a CAP, their withdrawal must be delayed until the end of the assessor’s term. In Rubeor, the Towns of Wright, Schoharie and Esperance each entered into a municipal cooperative agreement establishing a CAP. CAPs allow a single tax assessor to hold office in multiple municipalities. The Town of Wright chose to unilaterally withdraw from the CAP and appointed its own interim assessor. The Petitioner, the existing assessor in Wright via the CAP, still had nine months remaining in his term with that Town. The Petitioner brought an action claiming that he was improperly removed from office and, as a result, deprived of a vested property right.
New York Real Property Tax Law § 310 provides that an assessor’s term shall be six years. Assessors may only be removed for “just cause” by the appointing authority after a hearing upon notice. Simultaneously, § 579 provides that a municipality may withdraw from a CAP at any time. In an attempt to reconcile these statutes, the Third Department concluded that although towns may withdraw from CAP programs, this withdrawal must be delayed until the assessor’s six year term expires. Therefore, the assessor had a right to continued employment until the natural end of the term of the CAP.
This decision makes it clear that towns will not be able to avoid the “just cause” requirement by simply opting out of a CAP. Imposing stricter standards on removal is in line with the position consistently taken by the New York State Assessors Association. The Association regularly seeks higher protection for assessors, arguing that these protections are necessary to ensure assessors are not removed for every controversial decision, or every time a new appointing authority is elected. We will continue to watch for interpretations of this decision and, in the meantime, towns should give appointment decisions great weight.
(Co-authored by Georgia Crinnin, Esq.)