By Connor Beach
A Huntington councilman’s plan to hire a new law firm to represent the town in an ongoing legal battle with LIPA was rejected Tuesday afternoon in a heated debate among board members.
Regarding the ongoing tax certiorari involving the town, Northport-East Northport School District and LIPA, Councilman Eugene Cook wants to replace the aid to the town’s current counsel in the case, Poughkeepsie-based Lewis & Greer, P.C.
Albany-based E. Stewart Jones Hacker Murphy LLP is currently assisting Lewis & Greer, P.C., to the tune of $285 per hour of attorney time, and $135 per hour for paralegals.
Cook, however, wants to replace the firm with New York City-based law firm of Boise Schiller Flexner LLP. His proposal comes with a pay increase, as he’s proposing to pay Boise Schiller Flexner at an hourly rate of $1,650 of attorney time, and $310 of paralegal time.
Councilman Ed Smyth supported the move, calling Boise Schiller a “hired gun” that should have been working on the case from day one.
The proposal stalled after Supervisor Chad Lupinacci, Councilman Mark Cuthbertson and Councilwoman Joan Cergol voted against it. Cuthbertson and Lupinacci said they voted down the proposal due to the increased costs Cook was calling for.
Cook, meanwhile, said the cost to hire the highly-regarded Boise Schiller would be “a whole lot less than the hundreds of millions we could potentially lose” as a result of the case.
“They think outside of the box,” Cook said. “We need to throw everything we have at LIPA to win, and I believe it’s an extremely winnable case.”
The certiorari was initiated in 2010 by the utility with a challenge to the town’s assessment of the value of the Northport Power Plant property.
LIPA currently pays $80 million annually in property taxes based on the town’s $3.8 billion valuation, but seeks to decrease the valuation by nearly 90 percent.
Of the $80 million in property taxes generated by the plant, $50 million is earmarked for the school district, with the remaining $30 million to the town.
If LIPA is successful in its challenge, both the town and school district could see a significant loss in tax revenue.
Other municipalities that are in similar disputes with LIPA, including the Town of Brookhaven, have settled.
Lupinacci said Tuesday that Huntington is prepared to take its case to trial.
Several members of the Northport-East Northport School Board attended Tuesday’s meeting to support Cook’s resolution, including David Stein, vice president of the district’s school board.
“I urge you to ensure that we engage the services of the biggest, best, brightest and most well-known who can make the biggest impact,” Stein said.
Cuthbertson argued that the price to hire Boise Schiller was too high, especially, he said, considering the firm has no experience in power plant condemnation.
“If spending $1,650 an hour on a lawyer was a silver bullet that would actually achieve something here, then I would do it,” Cuthbertson said, adding that it would be irresponsible to change course this late into the case.
Lupinacci warned that Boise Schiller may be looking at Huntington as a “cash cow” that could come up with the nearly $1 million, he predicted, the firm’s services would eventually cost the town.
Lupinacci did say that the town board could revisit the attorney issue if the board “felt our current attorney required additional help.”
The town’s tax certiorari trial against LIPA is scheduled to begin June 11.