August 15, 2018

Inside the $27 million dispute over the Mount Vernon Tennis Center

Video: Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Thomas explains the demolition of the tennis center
John Meore, [email protected]

Newly filed court records provide first-time details of the feud between the Mount Vernon Tennis Center and officials at City Hall

The midnight phone call telling Kela Simunyola that men with axes and crowbars were demolishing his business came from a member of his cleaning crew. 

Simunyola called Mount Vernon police. They told him officers were conducting “an investigation” at the tennis center at Memorial Field, which he operates as Kela Tennis Inc. under a 15-year license agreement with the city in 2015. 

By the time he arrived, Simunyola said locks to the blower unit at the tennis bubble at the facility had been broken open, the electrical room had been broken into and the power had been shut off. The men opened the emergency doors, collapsing the bubble.

Then they tried to rip the bolts that anchor the structure out of their concrete base.

“When I arrived at the tennis facility, I was not permitted to stop the individuals,” Simunyola said in court papers. “But rather, the Mount Vernon police escorted me away from the individuals to permit them to continue to vandalize the tennis bubble, causing them to collapse.

“My protests fell on deaf ears, as the Mount Vernon Police Department were clearly on site to assist the Figueroa individuals in their efforts to sabotage the tennis bubble,” he continued. 

The details of the controversial June 1 incident are recounted in newly filed court papers, part of a $27 million lawsuit filed by Simunyola against the city, Figueroa & Son Contracting, the firm hired for the demolition, and Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Thomas — who Simunyola blames for the dark-of-night assault on his tennis center. 

READ: Simunyola’s court affidavit

LAWSUIT: Kela’s $27M civil claim

PROTEST: Memorial Field dispute heats up

COUNCIL: Lawmakers sue to stop demolition

“Upon information and belief, Mayor Thomas authorized and directed Figueroa to shut down the utilities servicing the Memorial Field Tennis Facility, and collapse the tennis bubble to forcibly dispossess Kela Tennis,” he said in an affidavit filed Wednesday.

Blame game

The Mount Vernon Tennis Center has emerged as the latest casualty in the lingering dispute over the future of Memorial Field. Thomas, who promised during his 2015 mayoral run that he would restore the historic field to its past glory, maintains that the tennis center has to be relocated to make the plan possible.

City officials also contend that Kela Tennis owes the city $500,000 in lease payments — a claim Kela’s attorneys dispute — and that the facility largely served out-of-town residents, not Mount Vernon locals.

“Kela Tennis never paid a dime in rent that they owed to the City of Mount Vernon and never paid for their utilities either,” city Corporation Counsel Lawrence Porcari said in a statement this week. “When you don’t pay your power bill, the electricity gets cut.”

The Thomas administration has repeatedly blamed former Mayor Ernie Davis for the morass at Memorial Field. Davis altered a joint agreement between the city and Westchester County when he took office in 2012, and instead used the money to reopen and expand the tennis center at the rear of the field.

Those changes, part of a separate legal battle, made the original redevelopment plan obsolete because the new courts encroached on the field, where an eight-lane running track was supposed to be located.

On Davis’ watch, as much as 12,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil was dumped at the edge of the field. Years later, it is still unknown who dumped the soil there.

Thomas has been left to deal with that as well.

“Mount Vernon is also required to comply with a long-standing environmental order issued by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation,” Porcari said. “The city must dig up the illegal debris under the tennis courts and mitigate the environmental damage. Any “handshake deal” that Kela had with former Mayor Ernie Davis has no legal merit. Mount Vernon deserves better and we look forward to the court’s recognition of the city’s rights.” 

Now the tennis center is caught in the middle.

‘Without merit’

Kela Tennis filed its lawsuit against Thomas and the city on Friday in state Supreme Court in White Plains.The suit is one of a half-dozen tied to Memorial Field. 

The tennis center saga can be tracked through a series of legal maneuvers and documents. 

  • February 2015, according to records filed in court this week, Kela signed the original lease agreement with Davis. Because the city failed to meet deadlines in the agreement, Kela said he had to spend $340,000 out-of-pocket to open the center.
  • Dec. 31, 2015, Davis’ last day in office, Kela and the city signed an amendment to the lease agreement that made the city responsible for utility payments at the center and significantly reduced Kela’s payments. 
  • Feb. 3, 2018. Lawyers for the city wrote to Kela that the center was “in arrearageas to licensing fees in the sum of $265,655.10.” 
  • Feb. 15.  Jacqueline Warner, Kela’s lawyer, said she and her client “strongly contend that the default letter sent is without merit and it also came as a complete surprise to my client, particularly in light of not only certain verbiage in the fully executed addendum to the license agreement, but also in light of representations and warranties made by various city officials.”
  • Feb. 16. Porcari, the corporation counsel, wrote to Kela Tennis informing them that an emergency situation existed because a portion of the grandstands were in danger of collapsing. The wall in question is near portable bathrooms used by the center.

Told not to bring lawyer

Warner’s Feb. 15 letter also complained about a Feb. 13 meeting between Simunyola and city officials, including Thomas, Porcari and two city commissioners. 

“For whatever reason, my clients were told they did not need counsel present,” Warner wrote. “My client, who has always desired an amicable, trusting relationship with the City, decided to attend on the City’s terms.”

Suminyola and his wife were told the tennis center had to be shut down and relocated to make room for the planned track at Memorial Field. 

In the months that followed, the city moved forward with plans to demolish the old brick grandstands at Memorial Field, and the dispute over the tennis center deal continued.

“The city is now forced to declare an emergency and immediately demolish the unsafe and dangerous structure,” Porcari wrote on Feb. 16. “Given the drainage problems that already exist, together with the lack of perinanent and proper bathroom facilities on site, it is the opinion-of the City that the tennis facility must intermediately cease operations and shut down no later than March 15, 2018.” 

Kela Tennis maintains an emergency situation never existed, and that the tennis center was never in danger of a collapse at the grandstands. 

The city and the center continued to negotiate an agreement over the lease payments, but the matter came to a head on April 30, when lawyers for the city notified Kela that they were in default of the agreement and would be shut down on June 1.

Even after that notice, the tennis center received another letter on May 12 restating that there was an emergency situation involving the grandstands. 

“Mount Vernon safely demolished the grandstands without any incident with regard to Kela Tennis, and my family and I continued to operate the tennis facility,” Simunyola wrote in his court affidavit.  

That was until the midnight call he and his wife received on June 1.

Facebook: Jorge FitzGibbon. Twitter: @jfitzgibbon

Read or Share this story: https://www.lohud.com/story/news/local/westchester/mount-vernon/2018/06/14/inside-27-million-dispute-over-mount-vernon-tennis-center/699058002/

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*