Montgomery County

Amsterdam mayor, Buddhists trade barbs

Tensions between the city and a local Buddhist nonprofit organization escalated Tuesday when Amsterd
Guang Huan Mi Zong World Peace and Health Organization located in Fultonville.
Guang Huan Mi Zong World Peace and Health Organization located in Fultonville.

Tensions between the city and a local Buddhist nonprofit organization escalated Tuesday when Amsterdam Mayor Ann Thane called the group “disingenuous” and costly to the city.

In an email to the World Peace and Health Organization, Thane rejected an invitation to a Buddhist enlightenment celebration and said, “You have fostered great difficulty in our community and will cost our city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Your organization has been disingenuous about your intentions in the city, selling properties purchased in public auction to a dummy corporation.”

Thane said that when the group purchased 48 properties in 2009, it expressed aspirations of bringing investors with “billions of dollars” to the city. It also sought tax-exempt status on the properties on the grounds that the WPHO was a nonprofit, but the request was denied. In 2011, the organization sold the properties to Sunlight Recycling Co., which Thane calls a “dummy corporation.”

“They are not paying taxes on these properties, and nothing is going on with them,” she said. “Their original goals have not been met, and it is hurting the city.”

Thane said she reached out to the group numerous times and they had plans to work together.

“Their plans just evaporated so quickly,” she said.

The WPHO is an organization that aims to serve local communities, help local government and promote a healthy lifestyle. WPHO leaders said when they visited Amsterdam, they saw a city that was crumbling and wanted to try to help turn it around. Through auctions, the organization bought property that was often deteriorating and in need of a lot of repairs.

Jennie Wong, a WPHO spokeswoman, said Wednesday the properties had been burglarized or vandalized more than 200 times since 2009, and pipes and wiring have been ripped out of most of them.

“The police don’t really help us,” she said. “We haven’t had much luck dealing with them.”

Speaking through an interpreter, WPHO leader Ziguang Shang Shi called Thane a “liar” and said she has turned her back on the group. When the WPHO first came to Amsterdam, Shi said, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve the properties.

“We thought that if we put money into the property, the mayor would help us with some tax breaks,” Shi said, “but that did not happen. We want[ed] to make this Amsterdam look like the one in Europe.”

Realizing those lofty expectations were going to be difficult to meet, Shi said he sold many of the properties in 2011 to Sunlight Recycling Co., which he says is based in China or Vietnam.

“I didn’t have much contact with the man,” he said, adding that he sold the properties for $1 each. “I only met him once, and I think he wanted to rip everything out of the houses and sell it.”

The group has also complained of racial and religious discrimination in Amsterdam, saying residents do not want them in the area.

Thane said she hopes a new code enforcement program to combat blight will make it more difficult for organizations to scoop up dozens of properties at one time. She said she has reached out to the state Attorney General’s Office, but was told it does not handle local cases.

The WPHO also clashed recently with the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, which sold its former retreat house to the group for use as a temple. The shrine’s owners barricaded an interior road leading to the temple, blocking access from Shrine Road.

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