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Ogdensburg city planner calls for investigation into rent-free deal

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OGDENSBURG — A city official at the center of a controversy over a city-owned property in which a family has been allowed to live for three years without paying rent is calling on the City Council to open an official investigation into the city’s handling of an occupied tax-foreclosed property.

“I cannot sit by and watch (City Manager Arthur J. Sciorra) lie to you and the public,” Planning and Development Director J. Justin Woods said Wednesday. “Especially when he was party to discussions and approved all decisions.”

Mr. Woods said fear of retaliation from Mr. Sciorra was why he was directly addressing the council with his concerns.

The property, at 819 Knox St., is a single-family home that the city took possession of in June 2008. The family living on the property has not paid rent or taxes to the city during that time, and the city used a federal grant to rehabilitate the home.

“I’m blowing the whistle,” Mr. Woods said. “I’m just going to tell the truth and let the truth come out.”

Mr. Woods noted in a letter to the council that he felt that the city manager was isolating him, and has avoided meeting or speaking with him in the past 10 weeks. He said Mr. Sciorra also has discouraged him from attending council meetings.

“I had things to address the council about and Art told me not to come,” he said.

Members of the City Council have expressed frustration that they were not notified earlier of the situation surrounding the home by Mr. Woods or Mr. Sciorra. Mr. Woods said that the city manager failed to brief the city council on the property’s disposition.

“I was vaguely aware of the project and the property,” said Mr. Sciorra. “I thought of 819 Knox St. as just another address until recently.”

Mr. Sciorra said that city-owned properties often appear to him on lists without any details on them.

“There are many things going on in the city that I don’t follow very closely,” said Mr. Sciorra. “Each one of these offices has a department head that should be managing those affairs. When things rise to the level of being problematic, then I have to look at it.”

However, the Knox Street house was identified as a problem two years ago in a series of emails copied to Mr. Sciorra.

Mr. Sciorra also said that he did not always scrutinize emails copied to him by Mr. Woods concerning the property.

“I have 600,000 emails in my Outlook that I haven’t actually read yet,” said Mr. Sciorra. “(Mr. Woods) copies me on hundreds of emails that I don’t get to read because I assume that he would bring these things to me with resolutions. I don’t recall those emails.”

Mr. Sciorra said there is a difference between being informed of a plan and consenting to it.

“He’s assuming that if he copied me on an email that I read it and that I agree with him,” said Mr. Sciorra. “I didn’t see anything in the emails that he followed instructions that I gave him.”

Mr. Woods said that in addition to emails and memorandums, Mr. Sciorra received regular briefings on the house and tenants, and agreed with the city’s plan moving forward.

“Any time things deviate from the norm, and they certainly did with this property, I sit down with the city manager and discuss them with the city manager,” Mr. Woods said. “The fact is that Art was involved in the discussion and Art participated in all the decision making.”

The tenants of the property notified Mr. Woods of their desire to purchase the home in spring 2009. However, the city had deemed the house uninhabitable due to numerous code violations. The city then used Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds to rehabilitate the property.

“The home did have environmental issues and it was dealt with in the required manner,” said James A. O’Neill, president of C.W. Augustine Inc., DeKalb Junction, the company responsible for renovating the property. “The work did not require the family to be relocated, and we followed federal guidelines to the letter.”

Mr. O’Neill, who was authorized by the council to implement the housing grant programs for the city, said the company knew that the house was occupied before beginning work there.

“The house in question was occupied, and the city was well aware it was occupied,” said Mr. O’Neill. “We didn’t have to report that to anyone.”

Mr. O’Neill said the company holds weekly briefings with the Department of Planning & Development. Each quarter, a report drawn from those briefings is presented to the city manager as part of the requirements of the grant programs, Mr. Woods said.

“I didn’t really know what was going on the past two years,” said Mr. Sciorra. “I didn’t stay up to date about all the dealings of that property.”

Both Mr. Sciorra and Mr. Woods said the sale and treatment of the property were being conducted in a legal manner, and that the city was currently collecting taxes on the property, just not from the tenants.

“The current taxes on the property were paid out of the grant fund, and the older taxes could be paid back out of the sale of the property,” said Mr. Woods. “It wasn’t costing the city money.”

“I’m going to research it and rectify it in any way that’s possible,” said Mr. Sciorra. “It just shows that there may need to be a better process for handling these properties that we get through tax sale.”

Under Section 14 of the city charter, the Ogdensburg City Council may open an investigation into the affairs of any city department or office and may subpoena witnesses and evidence for those proceedings.

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