Schenectady residency law squeezes assessor
Enforcement push under McCarthy faces challenge
SCHENECTADY Assessor Tina Dimitriadis may lose her job this fall if she doesn’t move into the city.
She recently moved from Troy to Colonie to help care for her elderly father in his duplex. She doesn’t want to uproot him, but she wants to keep her job.
According to the mayor, she can’t have both.
“The next assessor will live in the city of Schenectady,” Mayor Gary McCarthy said.
Dimitriadis was hired by Mayor Brian U. Stratton, who didn’t enforce the residency law. It requires all city employees to live in Schenectady.
Stratton argued that he should hire the best qualified people, whether or not they were willing to move to Schenectady. As he hired department heads who lived elsewhere, other city workers quietly began to buy houses outside the city.
Now McCarthy is insisting on the law for new hires — and those, like Dimitriadis, who need their contract renewed.
“As I’m hiring them, I want them to live in the city. Where I have sole discretion, it’s happening,” he said. “The rule’s always been there. It’s a matter of enforcement.”
But it’s also a matter of negotiation. McCarthy agreed to accept as residency, Police Chief Brian Kilcullen living in his parents’ house five days a week. He also looked the other way when he rehired the entire wastewater treatment plant staff after taking over the plant with only a few week’s notice last year.
“We really needed their skill set,” he said. “[That was] the one area where we cut a little slack.”
In addition, Civil Service laws protect most of the people already on the city’s payroll. McCarthy is trying to persuade them to move back through the Key to the City housing program.
“One of the sub groups we’re marketing to is city employees,” he said. “I’m trying to move it back to where people take pride and want to live here.”
Among his department heads, General Services Commissioner Carl Olsen long ago received a waiver for family medical reasons from the residency board. Kilcullen and Fire Chief Michael Della Rocco cited state laws that may allow them to ignore the residency law.
All the other department heads live here, except Dimitriadis. She said she can only respect the residency law if it’s applied to everyone equally — including wastewater treatment workers. She also said it might be for the best if she didn’t live in the city, because she doesn’t make the social and political connections that could lead to allegations that she changed assessments to help and hurt others.
“Think about it. I don’t know who’s who, I don’t know who’s connected to who,” she said. “There’s a lot of support now that maybe it’s better not to have the assessor within the city limits.”
On the other hand, the assessor plays a pivotal role in taxation. Each owner’s tax bill is based on their property assessment. Supporters of the residency law, including Alliance Party founder Roger Hull, want department heads to face the consequences of their policies.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘We’re going to do X,’ if X doesn’t apply to you,” Hull said. “They [should be] impacted by the decisions they make.”
Della Rocco said he values residency so much that he tried to hire only Schenectady residents as firefighters. He grew up in Schenectady but a family medical problem led him to purchase a house in the suburbs.
“There is an advantage to having people live in the neighborhoods,” he said, citing reports about dangerous building conditions that his firefighters notice while off-duty.
According to Schenectady’s residency law, those with a hardship can take their case to a residency board, which can grant one-year waivers.
Dimitriadis has asked for a hearing in front of the board, but it’s not clear whether that board even has active members. There are no scheduled meetings and have not been for years. She’s hoping it is reinstated before September.
“I would like to keep my job,” she said. “I feel good about what we’ve done here.”
She has cleared out inaccuracies in the senior and veterans’ tax exemptions, and is now planning a lengthy project investigating the nonprofits’ tax exemptions. She also helped resolve long-standing tax challenges from National Grid and Verizon.