Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 5
 
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
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Residents Urge Closer Look at Revaluation

Dilshanie Perera

Residents are questioning trends seen in revaluation outcomes. During last week’s Borough Council meeting, resident Chris Baldwin shared his calculations, which suggested that in his neighborhood lower-priced homes were taking on a larger share of the total tax burden as a result of the new assessment, while higher valued homes seemed to be assessed for a smaller proportion of the share.

Mr. Baldwin urged Council to examine whether the trend may be a Borough-wide phenomenon, and to take a closer look at the methodology used by Appraisal Systems (the company with which the Borough and Township contracted for the revaluations) to determine the homeowner assessments and whether an inadvertent bias may be built into the calculations.

Other homeowners have also taken issue with some of the proposed revaluations, asking why discrepancies exist within the same neighborhood regarding land values. Borough resident Donald Cox said that though the small Class 1 and 2 lots in his neighborhood were of “nearly identical 5,000 square foot” size, the land value rates for different properties were very different, ranging from $11.50 to $23.52 to $83.40 dollars per square foot for three homes, respectively.

“It appears that no uniform measurement of land value was determined in accordance with Section 502.4 of the New Jersey Assessor’s Handbook,” Mr. Cox wrote in a letter.

An anonymous source who self-identified as a homeowner in the Borough also submitted an analysis to Council, as well as Town Topics, which was based on the revaluation data provided by Appraisal Systems, saying that the numbers “show a systemic shift of the tax burden from the relatively rich to the relatively poor,” though the source called for independent verification of the calculations.

The current revaluation numbers can be found on the Appraisal Systems website at http://asinj.com/revaluation.asp?p=current&id=176. Data from the anonymous source can be found at http://tinyurl.com/ylct5zo.

Subsequent analysis of all of the Borough valuation data by Mr. Baldwin showed trends similar to the one occurring in his neighborhood, with lower-valued homes paying a larger share of the total tax burden, while the shares of some of the larger homes decreased, he said.

“In looking at the data, I was also struck by the amount of variability or scatter in the data...with some homes with much higher assessments than before, and some with much lower assessments,” Mr. Baldwin noted.

His intent being to “open up a community-wide discussion,” Mr. Baldwin said he hopes the Borough will determine whether any bias exists in the appraisal methodology.

“This is a fundamental issue to people’s lives,” Mr. Baldwin said, urging Council to hold a public forum sharing the information and addressing residents’ questions.

Borough Administrator Robert Bruschi said in an e-mail that no meeting has been scheduled at this point in time. “My recommendation to the governing body is to let the process unfold,” he noted, adding that there are many safeguards that ensure the integrity of the revaluation process.

Likewise, Borough Tax Assessor Neal Snyder wrote that “all real property is to be assessed by market value,” and that the method Appraisal Systems utilized is consistent with the methodology recommended by the State of New Jersey.

According to state statues (N.J.S.A. 54:4-23), the “‘full and fair value’ or ‘true value’ is defined as ‘the price at which, in the assessor’s judgement, each parcel of real property would sell for at a fair and bona fide sale by private contract on October 1 next preceding the date on which the assessor shall complete his assessments.”

Brett Trout, a vice president at Appraisal Systems, said that the company’s calculations are based on current market values. “We look at what homes are actually selling for...and that’s what dictates the assessments.”

“Princeton Borough is a very desirable community,” Mr. Trout said, adding that “our job is simply to look at what the sales are dictating...and what is taking place in the market.”

He noted that they looked at three years’ worth of data from 2007, 2008, and 2009, with October 1, 2009 being the time at which values were calculated.

Appraisal Systems is putting together a tax impact statement this week, which will be posted to their website (www.asinj.com), and will “show the average increase in assessment from old to new, broken down by property types,” Mr. Trout said.

The tax impact statement should increase clarity regarding the process and the outcomes of the revaluation, Mr. Trout suggested, adding that “not everything appreciates the same way in the market.”

During the Borough meeting, Councilman David Goldfarb pointed out that any resident who feels their property has been valued unfairly can meet with the Assessor and petition the Mercer County Board of Taxation, which governs the overall process.

“Litigation is always an option,” Roger Martindell of Borough Council added.

Council member Jenny Crumiller, who is also a member of the Borough’s Citizens Finance Advocacy Taskforce, said that the group has looked at the calculations presented by the residents and “on the surface, we don’t see evidence that the system is flawed, but rather that the shift in tax burden from higher to lower price properties is a reflection of market forces.”

“While the revaluation has highlighted broader issues about the property tax system and the rising housing prices in Princeton, [the taskforce] is looking at the costs in the government that are driving the tax increases and that’s what it will continue to focus on,” Ms. Crumiller said, adding that Council is “confident” in the revaluation methodology.

The Citizens Finance Advocacy Taskforce will be presenting a paper on employee benefits to Council at its next public meeting on Tuesday, February 9 at 7:30 p.m. in Borough Hall.

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