NORTH TONAWANDA – The city is firing back against convenience store owner Muwafek S. “Moe” Rizek in the wake of his federal lawsuit accusing the North Tonawanda Police Department of stealing evidence from his burned-out store.
City Attorney Shawn P. Nickerson is seeking a court order that Rizek sign a settlement he agreed to early this year in State Supreme Court. Nickerson said he thinks that Rizek, by signing it, would void the federal case, which also accuses the city of slander and discriminating against him because of his Arab ancestry.
Meanwhile, the City Assessor’s Office has raised the valuation of Rizek’s store substantially above what it was before a 2009 fire gutted it. Rizek said he believes that was a revenge move by City Hall, but Assessor Flora D. Carozzolo denied it.
The May 15, 2009, fire at Mark’s Food Market II, 290 Oliver St., set a long chain of events in motion.
Rizek’s insurance company refused to pay him benefits, accusing him of arson. Rizek sued and won, with a State Supreme Court jury deliberating for all of 15 minutes on Dec. 8, 2011, before deciding the fire was caused by an electrical malfunction.
Finger Lakes Fire & Casualty Insurance Co. paid Rizek $500,000 after a settlement in January. The next day came a settlement in which Rizek agreed not to sue the city over its investigation of the blaze, which also came down on the side of arson.
The city agreed to refund a $2,500 building inspection fee to Rizek and drop all Housing Court charges against him.
But the refund hasn’t been paid because Rizek hasn’t signed the release from liability, Nickerson said.
Rizek’s attorney, Kevin T. Stocker, said last week that two police lieutenants hand-delivered him a copy of Nickerson’s motion, which will be argued Jan. 10 before State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr.
Stocker said Rizek’s federal case should continue because he has complaints that weren’t covered by the January settlement. Nickerson disagreed, saying the settlement bars Rizek from suing the city.
“The city wants that signed release … memorializing the settlement placed on the record,” Nicholson said.
Meanwhile, Rizek is complaining about Carozzolo’s move to hike the assessment on the store to $220,000, effective with the September 2013 school tax bill.
The store was assessed at $139,000 before the fire, a valuation that was dropped to $40,000 after the blaze.
“The timing is a surprise because I am not done with construction, and maybe going to $139,000 wouldn’t be too much of a surprise, but $220,000 is a bit too much,” Rizek said in a text message.
“It’s totally remodeled,” Carozzolo said. “We offered him a business improvement exemption. … It is something that’s still out there for him.” The city allows businesses that improve their properties to have a 10-year tax break, starting with a 50 percent discount on the value of upgrades. That exemption decreases by 5 percentage points per year.
Rizek also can file an assessment grievance in the standard fashion if he wants, the assessor said.
Rizek called it “retaliation” for the lawsuit. “By no means,” Carozzolo said. But she added, “I’m not surprised he feels that way, given the troubles he has had with the court system.”
“Certainly it shouldn’t be what it was since the fire, and maybe not before,” Nickerson said. “The place looks great.”