Corruption Behind the $4 Million Tab for Tax Appeals in Middletown

By guest blogger Linda Baum

I’m sure we all recall the big jump in our property assessments on 2009 tax bills. That was the result of a town-wide revaluation done at the height of the market in 2008 — a huge mistake. It guaranteed there would be an onslaught of appeals and the drastic measures we saw this year by the Mayor and Township Committee to find extra money to pay the $4 million dollar tab.

Remember the ugliness? The seizure of $500,000 of library funds and threats of police layoffs to gain concessions. Middletown certainly didn’t feel like a great place to live.

The Township should have done a revaluation years earlier. It had been at least 15 years since the last one. The company hired to do the revaluation had difficulty explaining the delay. That company, Realty Appraisal, does loads of revaluations around the State, and the cause for the delay didn’t stem from their efforts. So then where does blame lie?

If you spoke to the County Tax Administrator, I’m sure he would tell you that revaluations should probably happen every 4-5 years. By waiting, Middletown drew the ire of the County Tax Board.

Middletown Republicans basically thumbed their noses at the County and refused to do a revaluation while other municipalities followed the law. Meanwhile, the richest property owners in the Township saw property values increase hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in that time period while their taxes were based on assessments from long ago.

Residents in less affluent sections of the Township were picking up the tab for the Navesink River Road crowd. That’s because when expensive properties are dramatically under-assessed, the effect is to remove potentially hundreds of millions from the town-wide assessment base. The result is that everyone else pays proportionately more.

The low assessment base means that the tax rate would have been set too high. Evidence of that is the big decline in the overall tax rate upon revaluation – it went from $3.787 in 2008 to $1.725 in 2009 (per $100 of assessed value). Owners of newly built homes would have been among the most adversely affected by the inflated tax rate, which, coupled with their higher more up-to-date assessments, means they were paying more in property taxes than they should have been in the years prior to the revaluation.

The bottom line is that the more valuable your property and the longer you owned it, the more money you stood to save from the Township’s failure to revaluate.

Per the County, around 60% of Middletown residents saw a reduction in taxes as a result of the revaluation. Since the Township still needed to collect the same total revenue, it stands to reason that owners of high end properties saw the largest dollar increases in their taxes after the revaluation.

It seems to me the Township most likely delayed the revaluation for two reasons.

First, the Republican Party leaders resided along the Navesink River Road corridor and had enjoyed tax-free, enormous increases in the value of their homes. As they took advantage of this increase in equity, the Township gave them a free pass. A revaluation would have increased taxes for many of them.

Second, Democrats had started to take seats on the Township Committee and the Republican Party desperately wanted to avoid losing votes, and possibly control of the Township, by doing a revaluation. Republican strongholds like Shadow Lake might have punished Republican leaders for tax increases and shifted the balance of power.

The County was upset with Middletown officials and, in 2008, took the unprecedented step of suspending our tax assessor, Charlie Heck, for failing to submit the paperwork necessary to do the revaluation. In a brazen admission of the underlying truths, then Mayor Scharfenberger actually referred to Mr. Heck as “Saint Charlie”. And this year, Mayor Fiore and our all-Republican Township Committee voted unanimously to award Mr. Heck a $15,000 bonus.

While you can draw your own conclusions, it seems obvious to me that Republican officials manipulated the process for their own political and personal financial gain. Due to their delays, when they were finally compelled by the County to submit the data for the revaluation, they did so on the eve of the financial crisis, just before property values plummeted. It would have been wise to postpone the revaluation until the market settled, but they couldn’t ask for another extension because they were already in deep trouble with the County for waiting as long as they had.

The delay cost taxpayers dearly. To deal with the unrealistic property data created by the poorly-timed revaluation, the Township was forced to undertake a costly reassessment this year, forcing taxpayers to expend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a reassessment that could have been avoided.

The overall tab may be $6 million or more now. Township officials won’t reveal how much or exactly where the money is coming from to pay for it. But appeal awards continue to roll in, and one thing is certain. Middletown residents will be feeling the sting for years to come.

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Filed under Charles Heck, corruption, Middletown Township Committee, property tax reassessment, property tax revaluation, Republicans, Shadow Lake, tax appeals, tax assessor, tax rate

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