Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 32
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
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Fair Tax Movement Demands Data

Dilshanie Perera

Tired of what they call a lack of transparency, members of the Princeton Fair Tax Movement unanimously passed a resolution during their meeting at Township Hall Monday night asking the municipal governments to obtain the area data for each neighborhood in Princeton that was used in calculating individual tax assessments. Friday was deemed the due date for the information.

The area data, also referred to as the snapshot, is the value attributed to the land in a given demarcated neighborhood. It determines the site value, “and the site value is what is driving the [reassessment] process,” said Jim Floyd.

An overflow crowd packed the Township Municipal Complex for the second town-wide meeting on the 2010 reassessment to discuss discrepancies and errors found in revaluation numbers in particular neighborhoods, and to determine a course of action.

The Fair Tax Movement’s first step has been to organize into neighborhood groups to seek out trends or outliers in the revaluation process. Individual appeals are also encouraged. The group seeks to exhaust all remedies and options prior to taking any legal action.

Neighborhood reports made during the meeting showed discrepancies of various kinds. Dale Meade from Oakland Street said that he has been “concerned about how the methodology by ASI varies as it goes from neighborhood to neighborhood. There are big jumps in land values.” He was referring to the process by which Appraisal Systems Incorporated (ASI), the private firm with which the Borough and the Township contracted to do the revaluation, arrived at their numbers.

“The actual average is not the important thing; the important thing is the scatter of individual sales above that average,” Mr. Meade continued. The variation in the scatter between October 2009 and April 2010 was 4.8 percent, he reported, and right now it is 7.8 percent. “It has nearly doubled. Where is that trend going to go? At 15 percent, we’ll need to do another revaluation.”

Kip Cherry reported her findings from the Dempsey/Cuyler neighborhood, noting that the site value is what has been driving the assessment. “It is created by looking at comparables in your neighborhood.”

“In our neighborhood, it is $335,000. We have seen one snapshot...which is just listings, not only closed sales,” Ms. Cherry explained. That baseline number is the same for all comparable properties in a given neighborhood and is adjusted based on basic acreage.

In Ms. Cherry’s neighborhood, she explained, the first quarter-acre was deemed by ASI to be worth $200,000, while any amount above the first quarter-acre is valued at $100,000 per acre.

“Since everything hinges on the land, we need to understand how the comparables were converted to land plus improvements,” she added. “There’s a watershed at 0.4 acres. The lots smaller than 0.4 are assessed bigger than the lots at 0.4 and above. We don’t know why. If I own more land, I should be paying more.”

The current data shows that discounts have been applied to certain homes within a given grouping, which suggests that “the basic formula isn’t working correctly, because the appraisers felt they needed to give discounts,” Ms. Cherry said, calling for answers to the following questions: “How are the formulas being used? Is this a fair and equitable way of doing the assessments?”

Mr. Meade pointed out that he is interested in the land values as one travels from neighborhood to neighborhood, mentioning an instance where the site value increases 69 percent as one walks across the Borough-Township boundary.

Other residents came forward to share their stories, one noting how the sales data in the Murray Place/Aiken Avenue area is incomplete because her own house was not listed as one of the comparables even though it sold within the requisite time frame.

Duplexes and estate teardowns were highlighted as structures that required more research and a closer look.

Dan Preston from the Moore and Jefferson Street area shared his analysis, which showed that of the properties that sold in the neighborhood, it was a trend that larger homes sold for more than what they were assessed at, whereas smaller homes sold for slightly less. One home given a value of approximately $850,000 by ASI sold for sold for over $1 million, whereas another sold for $600,000 though it was valued at slightly more, he said, further emphasizing that the land value is driving the site value.

“This formula just doesn’t work,” lamented Jim Firestone, who noted that indications that it was off in several locations in town suggest a systemic problem with the assessment.

Elected officials from the Township Liz Lempert and Lance Liverman said they were seeking out solutions. “We’re mandated by the County to have taxes reevaluated...this is way over our heads in so many areas,” Mr. Liverman said. Relief efforts may include lower interest rates on delinquent tax bills, and potentially setting up a fund to help out those who have trouble paying an increase.

To that end, “a couple of us had a meeting with State Senator Shirely Turner and Represenative Reed Gusciora about using the [Revaluation Relief Act of 1993] in Princeton. We’ve asked for them to explore some amendments. We were thinking about using it across town, which would necessitate deeming many locales “in need of rehabilitation,” Ms. Lempert said.

Resident Anne Neumann called for repeating the revaluation next year, given the information collected by the tax assessor this year. “Send everyone a copy of their property cards to see if there are any discrepancies,” she said.

The idea of starting with a clean slate was implicit in Mr. Firestone’s observation that the system was “flawed from the beginning.”

The next meeting of the Fair Tax Movement will be at Princeton Borough Hall on August 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the open public meeting of Borough Council. A presentation will be made to the governing body.

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