GREENBURGH, N.Y. Now that the State Supreme Court ruled that the Valhalla school district has to repay $1.86 million of illegally-funded money to the town of Greenburgh, some are wondering who is really at fault and others are worrying how the district will come up with the funds.
"It's unfortunate that the Valhalla schools got the end of the line on this one," said Michael Smith, former president of the Valhalla School Board of Education and incoming county legislator. "Nobody at the time said that this was illegal."
State Supreme Court Justice Nicholas Colabella ruled Friday that Greenburgh's 2004 agreement to give the Valhalla schools $650,000 a year for 10 years in exchange for hosting a homeless shelter within its borders, was illegal. In court, the district said that they were given nearly $1,865,000. The money came from rent paid by to the town by WestHelp, the homeless shelter in Greenburgh.
William Rosenberg, current president of the Valhalla School Board, denied comment, and firmly stated that none of the board members or the superintendent wants to speak about the case.
However, Smith, who was the board president from 2005 to 2011, said that the Greenburgh Town Board, county legislators and county executive gave their approval with no indication that there would be any future repercussions. Now, years later, the courts are saying the opposite.
"It will be extraordinarily difficult [for the district to pay the money back]," said Smith, adding that the tax cap and other state-mandated regulations might make it hard for the district to repay the town. "It doesn't appear that the school district really did anything wrong. Everyone imaginable in the process approved it."
While it is a victory for Greenburgh to be receiving nearly $2 million, some place the blame on Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, who reportedly ignored claims from local residents and civic associations in 2003. Feiner's opposition said at the time that the grant was illegal.
"This agreement should never have happened," said Bob Bernstein, a lawyer, Edgemont resident and intervenor on the case. "It was a cynical attempt to pay off a neighborhood. It was blatantly political, and it should have no place in public policy. It was wrong. And, for years, Feiner would not listen to those of us who were telling him that it was wrong, both morally and legally. It's gratifying to get a court to rule that the agreement was indeed illegal and unenforceable."
Nevertheless, Feiner still defends his decision. He said that he awarded the money to the Valhalla schools to compensate the community for keeping WestHelp in Greenburgh. Members of the Knollwood Civic Association argued that the nearby homeless shelter caused their property values to decrease. Bernstein, however, said that he found no proof of decreased property values at the hands of the shelter.
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