Category Archives: tax appeals

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

>Free Seminar: "How to Appeal Your Property Tax Assessment"

>

If any one is interested:
Monday, February 28, 2011
7:00pm – 8:30pm
Monmouth County Library, Headquarters
125 Symmes Road
Manalapan, NJ 07726

On Monday, February 28, 2011, 7:00pm – 8:30pm, the Freehold Township Democratic Club presents a free seminar on how to appeal your property tax assessment. The seminar will be held at the Monmouth County Library, Headquarters, 125 Symmes Road, Manalapan, NJ 07726. Our speaker will be Beverly Bova-Scarano, Former Commissioner of the Monmouth County Board of Taxation, Past President NJ Association of County Tax Board Commissioners & Administrators, and Licensed Residential Real Estate Appraiser, State of NJ. This event is free and open to the public! Light refreshments will be served and handouts will be provided. Topics to be covered include:

*How to avoid common mistakes

*Understanding property assessment appeals

*Just how many comparables do you really need?

*What to expect at the property assessment appeal hearing . . . if it goes that far

RSVP’s are appreciated but not necessary. Please RSVP by calling 732-616-8855 or emailing vegand@verizon.net. Please park in the side lot, off Alexandria Drive.

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Filed under board of taxation, Monmouth County, Monmouth County Library, Seminar, tax appeals

>Looking At Both Sides

>by guest blogger Sean F. Byrnes, former Middletown Township Committeeman

Last week we saw the Township of Middletown enveloped in a dispute over the Township’s effort to convince the Board of Trustees for the Library to turn over a significant share of its surplus to the Township Committee for budget relief purposes. Unfortunately, the manner in which the township chose to solicit these funds lacked tact. Although the township had previously made less threatening overtures to the Library in an effort to win the Board of Trustees’ support for a funds transfer, when that effort failed, the Township pursued an aggressive campaign to convince the public that a transfer would be in their best interest. Spearheaded by new Committeeman Kevin Settembrino, this effort, whether intended or not, seemed rooted in tactics of intimidation and threats to de-municipalize the library and combine it with the County Library system. This effort also suggested that a failure of the Board of Trustees to abide by the wishes of the Township Committee would result in the loss of ten police officers, the layoff of a significant number of Township employees and, if you heard the comments at the Library Board of Trustees’ meeting, an effort by Township Committee members to replace existing Board of Trustees members.

Based on the comments from Board of Trustees’ members at their meeting on Tuesday, it would appear that the resolve of the Board of Trustees has not wilted in the face of these threats. Led by Randy Gabrielan, the Chairman of the Board, the Library challenged the assumptions, numbers and legal authority for the Township’s demand for a funds transfer. Looking ahead, as a Township resident, I would hope that both sides could retreat from the current level of heated rhetoric and restart their discussions.

I think it would be in the interest of all taxpayers for the Township Committee and Library to continue their discussions. It might make more sense to have the Township Administrator meet with the Director of the Library to discuss how the Library might be able to assist the township in this time of budget crisis. From the Library’s perspective, the Board has worked hard to build a reserve that could be used for future capital projects, and there is an understandable reluctance to use these funds to satisfy operating expenses for the Township. From the Township’s perspective, the Library has a protected stream of revenue that is not subject to the same stresses and demands that the Township must face when health care costs increase, pensions become more expensive and the cost of doing business generally continues to go up. There may be opportunities for these two parties to cooperate in other ways that would provide relief to the Township without exhausting the reserves of the library.

There is no question that the Township finds itself in a perfect storm of budgetary constraints. To be fair, some of these strains are beyond its control. But the Township moved at a glacial pace over the last several years as this financial crisis approached. A quicker response to the approaching financial storm would have made the Library ask a smaller one. Accordingly, before the Library turns over any of its reserves to the Township, it would be nice to see an acknowledgment that a swifter response from the township in 2009 and 2010 would have avoided the seriousness of the budget crisis that the Township currently faces. The Township did lay off approximately 16 employees last year, but did so only mid-year. Other municipalities took action much sooner and in more dramatic fashion. The former Mayor’s claims of 40 layoffs include retirements.

Other cost-saving measures were proposed over the last several years, but were rejected as too extreme. Unfortunately, as a result of the Township’s failure to act, the Township Committee must now contemplate cuts that go far beyond those that were previously considered “extreme.” Until the Township forms a subcommittee whose function is to focus on budget recommendations, track existing and anticipated debt, look for opportunities for consolidation and sharing of services and generally manage the Township’s finances on a more regular basis, the Township will always be reacting to rather than planning for increased demands for Township resources.

Once again, in fairness, the unfortunate timing of the Township’s reevaluation in 2009, just prior to a steep decrease in property values, set the Township up for a tax appeal nightmare in 2010 and 2011. (Of course, the township had mistakenly put off its reevaluation for approximately 14 years – had the township completed the reval when it should have, the steep drop in real estate prices would not have resulted in such a large number of tax appeals.) But regardless of the failure to conduct a timely revaluation, the Township has a legitimate reason to gripe, because when a resident or commercial property owner prevails on their tax appeal, the township must return to the taxpayer not only the municipal share of the taxes received from the taxpayer, but must also reimburse the taxpayer for the funds received by the School District during the year for which the tax appeal was filed. This reality is difficulty for some to believe, but true. And, in light of the fact that approximately two-thirds of the tax dollars go to school district activities, the Township ends up paying back the taxpayer for School District funds that the Township never received in its budget.

Consequently, the steady decrease in real estate value over the last couple of years has produced a field day for those filing tax appeals. The Township is now struggling to repay multi-year tax appeals that are probably worth nearly $4 million. Unfortunately, the Legislature has failed to assist municipalities facing this dilemma. Under the circumstances, given the unique circumstances facing municipalities, including picking up the tab for the Legislature’s bungling of pension contributions for public workers, the Legislature should provide assistance to townships by creating opportunities for public entities to finance the tax appeals or extend their repayment terms. In several years, the Township will be through this unique period where tax appeal refunds are substantial and hopefully return to a more predictable budget cycle. The Township Committee took the first step in this direction in 2010 when it decided to conduct a reassessment. Even thought the reassessment cost $400,000 the savings achieved in 2011 from reduced tax appeal filings will be far greater.

The realities of the tax appeals as set forth above increase the pressure for some agreement with the Library. At the same time, the Library will see its share of funding decrease by more than 10 percent next year, due to the fact that its revenue stream is dependent solely upon property values. With a 1.3 billion drop in the total assessed real estate in the Township of Middletown, the Library’s stream of revenue will be reduced considerably. Given this dynamic, it may make sense for the Township and Library to discuss mutual relief. In other words, the Township needs money now most desperately. The Library in the out years may need assistance as its funding stream declines. Perhaps assistance from the Library during the current year could be received in exchange for promises by the Township to return the favor several years down the road.

It might also make sense for the Library to consider some sort of partnership with the Arts Center. While the Arts Center has its own Board of Directors, this arrangement, as far as I know, is not routed in any legislative scheme. Indeed, the Township has effectively turned over the operation of the Arts Center to a non-profit corporation and the Board supervises these activities. Resident Jim Grenafege was the first person to suggest that the Library Board of Trustees might consider assimilating some of the Arts Center’s operations into its activities. A casual review of the websites for these two entities suggests that there is some degree of overlap between the artistic and cultural offerings from these two bodies. Given that they both have buildings that are relatively new and both are focused on improving the education of the citizens of this Township when it comes to arts, literature and music, there may be some opportunity for the Library to assist in the operation of the Arts Center, including some of its expenses. It is exciting to contemplate what the far larger Library work force might be able to provide to the Arts Center when it comes to running the day to day events and offerings at the Arts Center.

At the end of the day, the current legislation when it comes to Library transfer to municipalities, amended in October of 2010, will likely allow some transfer to take place. From the Township’s perspective, the amount of money to be transferred under the current legislative scheme will fall short of what the Township needs to avoid drastic reductions in personnel and services. However, somewhere within the circumstances discussed above, creative minds on both sides should be able to work out an arrangement that provides some additional relief for the Township, even if it may not be a direct transfer of funds of the magnitude the Township seeks. My hope would be that the time and energy on both sides be spent working toward that goal, rather than on blaming the other.

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Filed under 2% cap, budget deficit, budget surplus, Middletown Cultural Arts Center, Middletown Library, Middletown Township Committee, Sean F. Byrnes, tax appeals

>Opaqueness of Government Was Grenafege’s Point While Addressing Committee At Last Week’s Budget Adoption

>Last week I posted an piece of audio that featured an exchange between resident Jim Grenafege and mayor Gerard Scharfenberger that took place during the special budget adoption meeting Monday night September 7th. It was a rather heated exchange, but was a small segment of the overall address to the Township Committee made by Mr. Grenafege.

Grenafege addressed the issue of transparency in government which he called the “Opaqueness” of Middletown’s governing body.
He brought up the issue of early retirements and their effect on this years budget, he pointed out that the Township passed an ordinance last year that encouraged employees to take advantage of early retirements as a cost savings to the Township. By passing this ordinance the Township should have been able to do better job at planning for the rash of retirements sparked by Gov. Christie’s threat to change the State’s retirement system.
Grenafege brought up the issues of Tax Appeals.
It was stated that the township had to assume the full cost of the many tax appeals that were successfully approved against the town. Scharfenberger lamented that a portion of those appeals should have had to been paid by the Board of Education seeing that 60% of the overall property tax burden is attributed to the school system and not the Township.
Grenafege correctly pointed out that the Township owes $80M worth of debt to the school board in the form of deferred taxes, which the Township collects and uses to offset the municipal tax rate, and if the Township did a better job at planning a portion of that debt could have been put aside for the purpose of tax appeals.
After addressing health care costs and questioning the per capita costs ratio of employees to residents and how the $680 figure is derived that Scharfenberger loves to quote when talks about how fiscally conservative Middletown has been through the years, he moved on to the Middletown Sewage Authority and “Concerts in the Park”.
The Township has often said that the concerts are fully funded by corporate sponsors with no taxpayer dollars supporting them. Grenafege pointed out that at least one of these concerts were sponsored by the Middletown Library System, which was therefore, in fact funded indirectly by Middletown taxpayers.
Listen to the audio, it was a fascinating exchange that I am sure will keep you listening until the end of the 12 minute give and take between Jim Grenafege and the those on the Township Committee. The exchange between them is exactly what open government is all about and what needs to happen more often at Township meetings

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Filed under budget meeting, Jim Grenafege, Middletown, Middletown Township Committee, tax appeals

>Middletown’s Take on the Budget, with Comments

>The following press release was posted on Middletown’s website yesterday. The press release is the Township’s take on the newly adopted budget as usual it is a great spin job and very deceptive because no matter how you slice it, the municipal tax rate has been increased by nearly 12%. I would also point out that what’s in the press release is bull:

Township officials adopted an amended $64.7 million budget that reflects ongoing efforts to cut costs and keep the tax rate stable by cutting spending an additional $400,000.

“This year’s budget reflects a reduction of 40 staff positions, a salary freeze and across-the-board reductions in departmental operating budgets,” said Mayor Gerry Scharfenberger. “In sum, the Township’s amended budget represents a 2.67% increase in total property taxes in an extraordinarily difficult economic year.”

Under the amended budget, the municipal tax rate will increase 4.6 cents to 39.75 cents per $100 of assessed value. This equates to approximately $17 per month for the average Township home assessed at $435,000.

“This year, municipal taxes represent just 23% of a resident’s tax bill, with 62% being levied for schools and 15% for the county,” concluded Scharfenberger.

The adopted budget addresses nearly $10 million in lost revenue, including:

  • $1.6 million cut in state aid.
  • $1.4 million obligation for retroactive pay under resolved labor contracts.
  • $1 million in increased health care costs and nearly $1 million in deferred excess claims from 2009.
  • $900,000 for extraordinary snow and storm clean-up.
  • $1.8 million in deferred pension payments mandated by the state.
  • $1 million in property tax appeal refunds.
  • $400,000 in lost recycling revenue.

Here’s my response:

  1. Middletown knew a state cut in aid was coming, as did every half wit in the State. State revenues were down like $4.0 billion.
  2. Middletown could have easily predicted the wage increases in unresolved contracts. Unless we negotiated zero percent increases for 3 years, we knew this was coming. Again, very predictable.
  3. On health care costs, Middletown knew they underbudgeted by at least $800,000 in 2009, since they did an emergency appropriation (none of our neighboring towns had to do this). So, Middletown started $800,000 in the whole, and Middletown knew they had to increase their appropriation for 2010 by around $1,000,000. Hello. Not to hard to foresee.
  4. $900,000 for snow plowing. Middletown only budgeted $165,000. The town cut the 2009 snow budget way too much, gambling that we would not have snow.
  5. Deferred pensions. Is Scharfenberger kidding? He voted to defer the pension payment. Sean Brynes and Patrick Short voted no. He knew in May 2009 that we would have to pay this in 2010
  6. The $1,000,000 in tax appeals. I don’t know about this one, I don’t think it’s even in the budget.
  7. Recyling lost revenue is correct, hey Schary got something right.
And here’s yet another way to show how misleading this press release is:
The tax rate, last year was $0.35 per $100 assessed value. A home valued at $435,000 would be required to pay $1,526.85. I have a home with an assessed value of $420,000 and paid over $6K in taxes last year.

Under the new tax rate of $0.3975 I will have to pay $1,729.13. This is an 11.7% increase no matter how you look at it.

Using some of the figures presented below:

Last year rate * this year increase = new tax rate
.35 * .0267 = 0.359345 or almost $0.36 per $100 assessed value

This year rate – last year rate = difference or this year increase
.3975 – .35 = .0475

This year increase / this year rate = percent increase
.0475 / .3975 = 11.95%

Amended budget – last year budget = difference
64.7M – 61.8M = 2.9M

Increase in this year / total budget = percent increase in overall budget
2.9M / 64.7M = 4.48%
The numbers are definately being misrepresented at best.

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Filed under adopted budget, budget introduction, Gerry Scharfenberger, Middletown NJ, Patrick Short, press release, Sean F. Byrnes, State aid cuts, tax appeals, tax increase