Missing Middletown tax revenue found in county treasurer's office

By Matthew J. Perry
Close to $1 million in taxes due on six parcels of land, all owned by New York City, were discovered this month to have been deposited with the Delaware County treasurer’s office, solving a mystery caused by an unannounced change in the city’s payment procedures earlier this year.
Middletown Supervisor Len Utter and tax collector Ruth Storey grew concerned when the revenue, roughly $860,000 by Utter’s estimation, had not been paid by March of this year. The parcels included bodies of water, utility lines and the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
Talk of the missing revenue spread, and Utter was asked about it by Colchester Supervisor Bob Homovich at the county board of supervisors’ meeting on March 11. Still without an answer, and also aware that the city would have accrued substantial penalties for nonpayment, Utter responded with off-the-cuff speculation. “I said then, ‘I guess they just don’t have the money’,” he stated on Monday.
But the ensuing investigation by Utter and county officials affirmed that the taxes had been paid. “We got the money, on time,” chairman Jim Eisel told the board at its next meeting on March 25. Utter expressed regret that he had spoken publicly about the issue before the investigation into the whereabouts of the money was complete. “I made a mistake,” he told the board.
No one is certain why the city made the change. Shields speculated that new staff might have reviewed the payment methods, realized that because of parcel’s classification, the money was supposed to be sent to the county office. When they did so, neither Middletown nor the treasurer’s office was alerted. Treasury workers did not notice the payment among other, large “gobs of money” that the county collects from corporations and other entities with large holdings, said Shields.
The treasurer further explained that the parcels had been classified as utilities at least since the 1980s. “It’s peculiar, because I think three of the parcels are holdings in the reservoir itself,” she said. “But there’s never been a standard classification system for the New York counties. It’s up to the individual assessors.”
Eisel stated that Mike Sabansky, director of real property services, was still researching the city’s classification system with the intent of better understanding its methods and avoiding confusion in the future.
Utter reported that there were no repercussions for Middletown, despite such a large amount of money having been missing in action. “We weren’t dependent on those funds. Our budget, the light and fire districts, are all funded through other sources, namely the taxes of Middletown residents.”
“The money has been in the bank, gaining interest,” Shields said. “It’s all on the books. It just didn’t stand out.”
Also on March 25, Emergency Services director Rich Bell informed the supervisors that the federal Department of Homeland Security is pushing for community and citizen preparedness in the face of natural disasters. To that end, the department has supplied the county with guidebooks that will be made available to all towns. The manuals address all manner of disasters; Bell stated that with springtime underway, Delaware County residents should focus on flood information.
“We’re looking forward,” he said, after noting that western states have already experienced ‘tremendous flooding’ this year. “It brings back memories of what we’ve suffered. The key is for government to be prepared, but it’s extremely important for citizens to prepare and be as self-sufficient as possible.”
Bell stated that in the event of an emergency, households should strive to have a store of food, water, batteries and other supplies that would last up to 72 hours.
Tom Briggs, director of the county Human Needs Commission, stated that Delaware County especially needs volunteers to augment its officials in crises. “We’re sparsely populated and lack resources. We need volunteer directors to commit in an emergency. I realize the county supervisors are very sensitive to this.”
Bell stated that the FEMA guides will be distributed in numbers and locations requested by the town supervisors. Len Utter stated Monday that Middletown will make them available in the town clerk’s office.