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Tusten’s Johnson speaks out on Gurdjieff

By BEN JOHNSON

I have to admit that after reading Sullivan County Treasurer Ira Cohen’s account of what was happening with the Gurdjieff Foundation, I was thinking of suing the township myself. If one were to believe the distorted view Mr. Cohen gave, one would believe him to be a tireless crusader for the taxpayer and town officials as behind the scene dealmakers. However, the following is an accurate account of the facts related to this issue.

Townships in Sullivan County have historically solicited donations from tax-exempt organizations to offset the expenditures required to provide mandated services to those organizations. These voluntary donations help reduce the amount of monies that need to be paid out of taxpayers’ pockets. The Gurdjieff Foundation has donated money directly to the township despite that fact that they are not required to do so by their exemption. The Town of Tusten did not enable it to become tax exempt—New York State law did. The Gurdjieff Foundation did not pay money to the town to keep the exemption, as falsely asserted by Mr. Cohen, but donated money after the exemption was firmly established in accordance with the law.

The county treasurer contacted the town based on information his office gained from the Internet on the foundation. His original purpose was to gain revenue from this organization on room taxes he felt were not being collected by Sullivan County. The means with which he proposed to do this was to challenge the property tax-exempt status of this organization to make his room-tax case easier to prove.

Mr. Cohen continually fails to recognize that the foundation currently benefits from a moral or mental improvement exemption. The town, after seeking advice of counsel and meeting with Mr. Cohen, agreed that the educational exemption was not being met and could be challenged; however, Mr. Cohen did not even address the moral or mental improvement exemption.

The town did not believe that challenging this exemption was a strong case and was not willing to expend taxpayer’s monies on it. The treasurer’s office offered no contribution to the legal defense that would be required to uphold the decision to remove the exempt status. If the treasurer’s office and the Sullivan West School District expect the Town of Tusten to do their bidding by challenging the exempt status of this organization, they should have offered up front to pay their share of anticipated legal fees, not now, after the fact.

Sullivan County and the Sullivan West School District decided to bring legal action against the town regarding the monies received by the township from the foundation solely on Ira Cohen’s explanation. No county legislator, county official or Sullivan West school board member contacted the township on its position or asked for a meeting to explain Tusten’s position, or contacted the township to express that the only way this disagreement could be resolved was through legal action. The township found out about the legal action after the legislature authorized the county attorney to pursue Mr. Cohen’s request to proceed against the township. This action, if successful, fails to require the town to challenge the exempt status of this organization, which is the sole reason that Mr. Cohen communicated with the township from the onset.

Mr. Cohen needs to stop the non-productive arguing of “his version” in the press. I maintain that his efforts would be better spent in Albany attempting to change the law than spending taxpayer monies on court cases and lawsuits against his own Sullivan County townships. Mr. Cohen cries for unity and partnership, yet his actions speak differently.

[Ben Johnson is the Town of Tusten Town Supervisor.]