NEW BALTIMORE — The town council voted in April to abolish the position of tax collector and now several local residents are asking why the decision was made in an election year.
Tax collector is an elected position that handles property, water and sewer taxes. The incumbent tax collector, Diane Jordan, is in her ninth year in the post and announced March 22 her intention to retire at the end of December.
The town council voted unanimously to eliminate the tax collector’s position and transfer those duties to the office of the town clerk, Barbara Finke.
The move to abolish the tax collector’s post has been under consideration in the past and is not unique to New Baltimore, Town Supervisor Jeff Ruso said Monday.
“We had discussed this over the years on a number of occasions,” Ruso said. “We decided to go with what most of the towns in Greene County have already done. We touched base with a few of them to see how it works and when we found out that our longtime tax collector wasn’t going to continue — she was going to retire — we decided now was the time.”
More than half of the towns in the state, and eight of 14 towns in Greene County, have already abolished the tax collector’s position, he said.
But several local residents are questioning the timing of the decision. Janet Kash, co-chairwoman of the New Baltimore Democratic Committee, said the Working Families Party had already submitted a petition to run former RCS Community Library Director Judith Felsten for the tax collector’s post, and the Democratic Party intended to nominate Felsten at their caucus in July.
“The Working Families Party had already submitted their petitions and people thought they would have the opportunity to vote for Judith Felsten for tax collector in New Baltimore,” Kash said. “We were a bit surprised that this kind of action would be taken in an election year when petitions were already being filed.”
The town’s decision would expand office hours for the tax collector when the town clerk takes over those duties Jan. 1, Ruso said.
“We are looking at some improved services. The town clerk and/or her deputy town clerks are there five days a week, whereas the tax collector was there two, sometimes three times a week at the most,” Ruso said. “Maybe during tax season she was there more often.”
Hours at the tax collector’s office fluctuate depending on the time of the year, Jordan said. During the busiest times she is available Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the office is closed Wednesdays. During less busy times of the year the hours are reduced, she said.
Jordan said she does not have an opinion on transferring the tax collector’s duties to the town clerk’s office, but said she believes her retirement spurred the decision.
“I really don’t have an opinion. I don’t know the details at the moment on how it would work,” Jordan said. “I do think it was because of the retirement that they made the decision now.”
Jordan said she was approached by town officials several years ago about eliminating the position, but no action was taken, so she said she was not surprised by the board’s decision.
Kash said the timing was “odd” in an election year.
“We were curious about the timing and wondering why they would do this in an election year, but I don’t assign any politicism to anyone,” Kash said.
Felsten, who was slated to be on the ballot in November, said she also questioned the timing of the town’s decision.
“I thought the timing was funny,” Felsten said. “Apparently they never asked Diane Jordan if she was going to run. When she notified them of her decision, then suddenly on the next agenda there was a resolution to eliminate the position.”
Ruso said he was not aware the Working Families Party had filed a petition on behalf of a candidate when the board made its decision.
“I was informed after the fact that someone had petitioned to run for the position,” Ruso said. “The only ones who were upset were the people who filed a petition to run, but I had no idea that happened until after the fact.”
Resident James Eckl, a member of the New Baltimore Democratic Committee, penned a letter to the Greene County Board of Elections questioning the legality of the board’s decision, claiming that under town law, legislative action is needed to eliminate the position. The decision is also “contrary to sound policy,” Eckl stated in the letter.
He called on the county to put the position back on the ballot in November.
Republican Election Commissioner Brent Bogardus said the town makes the decision, but the state board of elections is verifying whether all legal requirements have been met in terms of the timing.
“Given the timeline that notifications were made, there are some uncertainties and we are trying to get a legal opinion from the state Board of Elections, which will determine the outcome,” Bogardus said. “As long as it is legal, it is fine by us — it is a town decision. We are sorting through this because there are some unknowns here and we are trying to get the timeline established and see if it is in accordance with the law.”
The state Board of Elections attorney will render an opinion, but it is unclear when that will happen, Bogardus said.
Town Clerk Barb Finke, who will take over the tax collector’s duties in January, said the board’s decision will be in the best interest of the community.
“I don’t know why this turned political,” Finke said. “This is all about serving the residents. If someone can come in and handle all of their business at one time, it is better for the residents. This wasn’t anything vindictive — it’s about public service. I think people get angry when they come in and can’t pay their taxes. I think the board felt this was about servicing the public. It had nothing to do with politics.”