Supervisor criticized for rent-free deal
By MIKE HIBBARD firstname.lastname@example.org 11 hrs ago 0
SENECA FALLS — Claiming it is improper and illegal, the former mayor of Seneca Falls — when it was a village — is criticizing the town supervisor for letting an employee live rent-free on town property.
At Thursday’s Town Board meeting, Brad Jones said a town representative took it upon himself to use taxpayer funds to build a compensation package for a town employee. Jones said the action was not discussed or voted on by the board.
While Jones did not mention names Thursday, Town Board member Doug Avery confirmed Friday that Jones was referring to Supervisor Greg Lazzaro allowing Joe Tullo — chief wastewater treatment plant operator — to live rent-free at town-owned property off Parker Road. Avery said Tullo had been paying $500 a month to live there, but Lazzaro waived the rent earlier this year without board knowledge.
Avery and fellow board members Dave DeLelys and Lou Ferrara Jr. responded to an email from the Times seeking comment on the issue. Lazzaro did not return a phone call or email on the subject, while board member Vic Porretta did not respond to an email.
DeLelys said he and Avery told Lazzaro he should not have authorized the free rent for Tullo.
“It should have been a board decision,” DeLelys said. “He will start paying rent again.”
Avery said the house is near the water intake station in Canoga. He said to his knowledge, it has been rented to a town worker for years although he didn’t know if there is any kind of formal lease or rent agreement.
“Sometime this spring, Greg told Joe he didn’t have to pay rent anymore. In my mind, this is tantamount to getting a $6,000 raise,” Avery said. “Salaries have been a contentious issue in the town this year. Some people have gotten them, some haven’t. This was done behind closed doors. I agree with Brad that it’s problematic.”
Ferrara said he had no prior knowledge of the deal.
“As a board I know we are working with counsel to have a lease agreement in place with an appropriate amount for rent. At that time Mr. Tullo can either sign or find housing elsewhere,” Ferrara said. “Also, I do not believe we as a town should be in the housing rental business. I will propose to my fellow board members that we sell this property.”
Avery said board members were “blindsided” after learning of the arrangement about a week ago, and it has been discussed among the board since then, including during an executive session after Thursday’s meeting. Avery said he could not discuss those talks.
Jones said while the discussion can be saved for executive session, town employees getting additional, nontraditional benefits — such as a rent-free living arrangement — is inappropriate, even if their performance warrants it.
“This should be transparent and clarified to the public to preserve trust in an increasingly untrustworthy process,” he said. “Any member of the public would love to see their rent or mortgage payment waived by their employer, but this type of benefit — even in lieu of a raise — is simply unreasonable when the department head is among the highest wage earners working for our town. It also needs to be determined if this is a taxable benefit or even a legal one.”
Jones said the house was owned by the village for years, and he had it leased or rented from 1996 through 2000 while he was mayor. Jones added that he doesn’t know if there is a formal lease or rental agreement now, and Avery said it may be an informal agreement.
“It’s hard to see this as anything other than a raise,” Avery said. “Everybody wants clarity on this subject. Other raises have been dealt with before by the full board. Not this one.”
Jones said the town is already under much scrutiny from state officials, and audit findings for many improper financial practices are forthcoming. He said he plans to share this “hidden tactic” with the state comptroller’s office.
“Full transparency has been a phrase used by this board numerous times,” he said. “Let’s now see how this improper and illegal unilateral decision, made by one public official, will be handled.”
Only fools are positive.