Lee enjoys what might be considered a more unattainable lifestyle at the six-bedroom, $1.2 million house she shares with Cuomo at 4 Bittersweet Lane. She has done much in the past six years to improve the three-acre property she calls Lily Pond, but along the way, has run afoul of town Building Inspector Bill Maskiell.
Maskiell said he had to hound her for six months in 2012 to obtain a building permit for a gazebo and shed she'd installed. Now he says Lee needs permits for interior renovations conducted over the past several years and much touted in the press.
Without a building permit, the town assessor hasn't reviewed the work to decide whether the improvements would merit an assessment hike, and higher taxes. The 2013 tax bill for Lee and Cuomo — who has made taming New York's notoriously high property taxes a cornerstone of his administration — was $28,312.
Keeping one's assessment from rising — or getting it reduced — is all part of suburban living in high-tax Westchester, and there are plenty of homeowners who do work to their homes without a permit. It's also a county where most municipalities have not revalued their real estate for decades, leaving thousands of homeowners with houses assessed and taxed at less than what they are worth. Absent building permits, the main purpose of which is to ensure safe construction, assessors have nothing to flag when work is done so they can decide whether it's increased a home's taxable value.
Much of the work Lee has had done to the property has come sans permit - and thus sans tax reassessment.
LoHud emailed Lee at the Food Network to get her response to the story and guess who replied?
An email message to Lee at the Food Network was answered by Larry Schwartz, Cuomo's secretary in Albany. He said any work performed at the Lee-Cuomo residence as noted in the USA Today article was "all decorative renovations and they don't require building permits. ... It was retiling, painting, wallpapering. It's like her line of work — decorative. I'm not aware of any rooms that were combined."
And what of the basement remodeling noted in the New York magazine article?
"Again, the key word is decorative," Schwartz wrote in an email. "Window treatments."
Couple of things to say here:
First, why is Larry Schwartz responding to an email to Lee at her Food Network account?
Schwartz works for the governor's office and is paid by taxpayer money.
Was Schwartz's defense of Sandra Lee's basement work the business of the people of State of New York?
Doubtful to me - it was simply doing the political business of Andy Cuomo to defend him and his partner Sandra Lee over what could become a campaign issue.
Which brings me to my second point:
I bet LoHud got tipped off to this Sandra Lee/permit story by Rob Astorino, Cuomo's GOP opponent:
Another public official, whose home improvements did not result in assessment hikes but did get a permit, is Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Cuomo in November's governor's race.
In 2011, Astorino obtained a building permit for $10,000 worth of work to his already-finished basement at 281 Pythian Ave. in Hawthorne. A drop ceiling was installed, along with a half-bathroom. The four-bedroom house has two baths, 1,518 square feet of living space and sits on a quarter-acre lot.
The property, assessed at $606,000, was purchased by Astorino for $705,000 in 2004. Town Assessor James Timmings said the assessment was raised significantly under the home's previous owner.
"Assessment is all about equality," he said. "Whenever a project is done, we review it, based on its contributory value."
Astorino said he obtained the building permits to make sure there were no repercussions.
"I wanted to make sure everything came out right," he said. "A problem with the project was the last thing I needed."
Just another example of how politically savvy Astorino is, managing to have his "i's" dotted and "t's" crossed for the permit story while Cuomo has to have his henchmen Larry Schwartz create some ruse about the much-covered improvements to the Lee home being nothing more than "decorative."