BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
By all accounts, Brian Kenny is one of the most competent but unassuming and unknown public officials working for the Town of Orangetown.
And, by his account, one of the most unappreciated. He has never received a pay increase since he was hired in 1995
Brian Kenny is Orangetown’s tax assessor, responsible for establishing the official net worth of every single property within the borders of Orangetown, whether it be vacant or developed and whether it be residential, commercial, publicly owned land, home to a non-profit agency or organization or the site of a hospital, military base or other unique institution. And even if its underwater, such as the Hudson River or the Lake Tappan Reservoir.
He must keep the valuations on the thousands of properties up to date annually, and he must establish annual property tax rates and individual bills for each, based on budgets given to him each year by Orangetown, Rockland County, three school districts and numerous small taxing entities such as libraries, fire and ambulance districts and water, sewage and lighting districts.
Working quietly in the background with property assessments, changes, appeals and taxes in a virtually invisible office at the Town Hall in Orangeburg for the past 18 years, Kenny is now seeking his first raise in that entire time period. Since no raise was ever offered to him, he said he finally decided to request one on his own, after noticing that other department heads in the township seem to get regular pay hikes, usually equal to whatever annual raise the town gives to its unionized workers.
The request caught the town board off guard, and it has been debating amongst itself just how to handle Kenny’s unusual predicament.
Complicating the matter somewhat is the fact that Kenny is an appointed official, serving a state-mandated six-year term of office.
He has been re-appointed twice already, thus having nearly completed three terms of office, or a total of 18 years of service to Orangetown when his current term expires thisDec. 31. He is currently seeking re-appointment to a fourth term of office, which would give him 24 years of service when that term ends in 2019.
Praise & Confusion
Town leaders have praised Kenny enthusiastically over the years, and especially over the past two months since he submitted his request for re-appointment.
None were in office when he was first appointed, and all have expressed surprise that he had never gotten a pay raise in all of his 18 years of service, saying they just assumed he got the same raise as every other town employee.
They have also expressed confusion over just how a re-appointment is supposed to occur.
Four of the five council members have so far indicated comfortability with just passing a resolution at a Town Board meeting making the re-appointment. Supervisor Andrew Stewart, the board’s only Democrat; along with Republican Councilmen Denis Troy, Thomas Morr and Thomas Diviny, have all said they have no problem with such a move, and are ready, willing and able to do so at any time before the end of the current year.
The entire board has interviewed Kenny in private, at an executive session meeting, and said they are satisfied with both his presentation and his 18 years of experience with the town. They add that they have no questions about Kenny’s qualifications or experience, nor his expertise and his handling of difficult tax certiorari lawsuits, tax appeals and complicated assessments such as on vacant buildings at the Wyeth (former Lederle Laboratories) campus in Pearl River, and similar highly specialized properties.
Councilman Paul Valentine, Republican from Blauvelt, has raised the question of just how the re-appointment process is supposed to work, however, and has so far managed to delay Kenny’s re-hiring until he gets a satisfactory answer.
And the whole board is now also of the opinion that they cannot grant Kenny a pay increase, even if they feel he deserves it, until they settle the re-appointment issue and even know if he will be working for the town next year or not. And the reverse is also true according to Valentine, who noted, “We can’t appointment someone without a contract (first).”
According to Valentine he believes the appropriate process for any town board appointment for any position in town government, whether it be a full-time employee or a part-time member of a board or commission, is to publicly advertise the availability of the position, seek resumes from interested candidates, hold interviews with all of the applicants along with a review of their resumes, experience and background, and finally a board vote on the person it feels is best qualified and should be hired.
No person has an automatic lock on any job in government, Valentine has insisted, no matter how long he has held the position and how well he is viewed as performing the job. If the position is civil service, and covered by union contracts, that is a different matter, Valentine says, and the town board should not be involved in their continued employment,
Contract employees who are not union members and not governed by any union contract or civil service regulations are an entirely different situation, however, according to Valentine.
While he acknowledges that he lacks support for such a process on Kenny’s re-appointment and salary negotiations, Valentine has so far remained steadfast in his insistence for an open screening process for the assessor’s job. He has also expressed to Kenny that his objections are not personal, aimed at him, but rather purely procedural.
“I appreciate all you do here,” Valentine said at the board’s last workshop meeting.” Everybody speaks highly of you. Your expertise at the job is not in question.”
“I do have a problem with re-appointing someone without doing interviews to at least look at what’s out there,” he added. “It’s nothing against you. I think that even if we did that, you’d comeback as the most qualified. I think we owe it to the voting public to at least do our due diligence.”
“Brian may be the best guy but how do we know unless we take resumes?” Valentine explained. “I’m just going what we were elected to do.”
Stewart and Kenny both explained the assessor’s unique position in Orangetown government in trying to show the public the unusual predicament the town faces in trying to resolve his employment status.
Under state law, town boards appoint assessors for six-year terms of office, with no limit on how many terms an assessor may serve.
They are not civil service employees and are not covered by any union contracts, since they are not allowed to belong to any bargaining unit of employees.
They are on what the state and town designate as the “Exempt A” list of employees, those appointed for specific terms and not eligible for any town or state benefits other than those granted to each one individually through individual contract negotiations. Other such employees in Orangetown have negotiated such separate contracts with the Town Board over the years, officials note, but Kenny never requested any similar contract.
As a result, he is apparently the only employee in Orangetown who has never gotten a pay increase and gets no benefits from the town, such as vacation and sick leave days.
Parity is Typical
Officials note that parity with union workers is the normal package given all employees in Orangetown.
Under that theory, the Town Board grants all employees who are not union members the same pay raises and benefits as union members get, under the town’s contract with the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA).
The board also usually grants the same pay hikes and benefits to itself, although it often forgoes the pay raises during election years to make it appear they are being frugal and therefore deserve re-election.
In Kenny’s case, he never requested a contract, and thus never sought a pay increase, and therefore never got one.
Apparently aggrieved at being the only employee never to get a raise, Kenny finally did submit a contract proposal this fall, including a provision for a pay raise.
To make up for his 18 years of stagnant salary, Kenny requested a 2014 salary equal to what he would have gotten if he had gotten the same pay raise ever year since he started working for the town, in 1995. With compounding, that would bring his salary next year to $125,000, far in excess of the $70,000 he currently receives.
Kenny will still not receive benefits such as sick days and vacation days but he will get full health insurance coverage for himself and his family both while still employed by Orangetown and for life, following his retirement, a benefit that is common among union employees.
If Kenny is re-appointed by the Town Board, and his contract proposal is accepted, this will also present other problems to the Town Board, Stewart also noted.
Since each person on the Exempt A list of employees has a separate contract with the town, each has different salaries and benefits since they were all negotiated individually rather than jointly, as with the union contract.
That means the Town Board will at some point have to decide whether to attempt to unify those contracts so they get similar salaries, or at least similar salary increases, and the same benefits. The alternative would be to let the workers, mostly department heads, continue to negotiate individual contracts with vastly different pay and benefits, such as being granted use of a town vehicle, expense accounts, access to tax exempt retirement accounts and a wide range of similar benefits.
After being removed from the agenda of the Town Board’s two meetings in August because of the confusion and disagreements, the matters of Kenny’s re-appointment and contract are tentatively back on the agenda for the council’s first meeting in September, scheduled for Monday, Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. at Town Hall. (The meeting would normally be held the next night, but that is Election Day and was thus re-scheduled).
Since that is a workshop meeting where no formal votes occur, consensus there would allow the matters to proceed to the board’s next regular meeting a week later for confirmation. That meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 17 at 7:30 p.m.
When the joint issues do finally reach a vote, Kenny appears to have plenty of support both for his re-appointment and his salary increase.
High praise for Kenny came at the August 6 workshop meeting from Quinton VanWynen, director of operations for the Pearl River School District.
“I’ve worked closely with Brian over the last 10 years,” VanWynen said. “In those 10 years, he has done an awful lot of good work in his analysis, particularly with tax certioraris. Brian has a tremendous ability to explain things in plain language. I can’t overstate the importance of that.”
As quoted on line by the Patch, VanWynen concluded by noting: “I’ve worked with him on several PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) agreements and certioraris (tax lawsuits). We are in a better place today because of his efforts.” Noting he could not be present for the Aug. 13 meeting, where a vote had been anticipated, because his own school board was meeting that same evening, he told the council “I wanted to make sure the district was heard on this.”
Stewart was equally as effusive, telling Kenny, “We appreciate what you do. I’ve certainly come to appreciate it over the last year and a half (since he has been supervisor). One thing we need to figure out is what we are doing with all of the people who work for the town related to members of the CSEA. The question of your salary is connected to excluded employees.”
Councilman Denis Troy was equally as laudatory, saying “Brian has done a tremendous job resolving those tax certs over the years and keeping us out of court. He is as trustworthy as you can come. To me, he’s like a rock.” He added that he does not believe the board should solicit other applications for the position, or interview other candidates.
“To me, that would be a slap in the face” (to Kenny), Troy asserted.