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Vol. LXV, No. 12
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
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“1,000 Band-Aids Instead of a Tourniquet”: Revaluation Group Faults Compliance Efforts

Ellen Gilbert

“We’re finding that the Revaluation Study Joint Commission didn’t seem to be interested in what we’re saying, and didn’t understand what we’re doing,” commented Princeton Fair Tax Revaluation Group charter member Jim Firestone in a recent interview. In the face of this unresponsiveness, he added, “we’re moving right along.”

In addition to continuing to explore a possible lawsuit, “moving along” right now means circulating a petition calling upon the governing bodies of the Borough and the Township to “Enforce the contract with ASI and recoup funds previously paid to ASI to perform this flawed revaluation; use those funds and other funds to do a new and more equitable revaluation as soon as possible, and, return to the property assessments that were in place prior to the ASI revaluation until a new revaluation is completed.” Mr. Firestone and Dale Meade, another Revaluation Group leader, indicated that they expect to collect between 800 and 1,000 names. Although a contingent of 25 “walkers” are out gathering signatures, those people who have not been approached but who are interested in signing the petition may go to the group’s website,, for directions.

The Revaluation Group’s efforts to address what many perceived as an inequitable revaluation last year have included the creation of detailed maps and charts that highlight widespread discrepancies in the conclusions of ASI, the firm that was retained to do the revaluation. A February 13 letter to Mr. Firestone, signed by Commission Co-Chairs Peter Marks and Michael Reilly written in response to the presentation of these data at a February 10 meeting, requested copies of the materials and answers to specific questions about “proper samples” and “the specific deficiencies which you believe distorted the revaluation results.”

Armed with the responses to these and other questions, as well as details regarding legal standards for revaluation and compliance, Mr. Firestone and Mr. Meade appeared at the next Commission meeting where “they didn’t ask us any of the questions they had posed.” Instead, said Mr. Firestone, “they were telling us why the revaluation was okay.”

Complicating the picture, according to Revaluation Group members, is ASI’s continued failure to provide documents describing how they went about conducting the revaluation. The most recent wrinkle, however, is the apparent failure of subsequent adjustments made by Tax Assessor Neal A. Snyder to rectify the earlier revaluation process, which used, for example, the presence of a new “McMansion” in a neighborhood to drive up the values — and consequent tax rates — of area homes.

The fact that some 40 percent of the original assessments changed as a result of Mr. Snyder’s most recent round of revaluations is strong evidence, said Mr. Meade, of how “way off” the original assessments were. While some of the latest numbers are higher than the originals and some are lower, most of them continue to feel arbitrary and hard to rationalize, according to Mr. Firestone and Mr. Meade. They note that there are some 33 types of transactions that qualify (usually for no apparent reason) as “unusable,” and that Mr. Snyder has liberally cited them, rendering the compliance plan “systematically flawed” and rife with inconsistencies, much like the revaluation it was supposed to rectify. Among the other anomalies in the compliance process, they say, was the fact that while the “green cards” informing residents of assessment changes were, according to the cards, mailed via first class on January 31, people did not receive them until February 17 and later. With an April 1 deadline, residents were thus faced with far fewer days in which to appeal.

“We think that he [Mr. Snyder] should have to explain this to the public,” said Mr. Meade, who is the current head of the Princeton University Plasma Physics Laboratory’s FIRE (Fusion Ignition Research Experiment) project. “There’s a lot of power in one person with no one looking over his shoulder. I don’t remember any hoopla in prior revaluations,” he added. “What happened this time? ASI did a terrible, terrible, sloppy job,” and now the municipalities are using “1,000 band-aids” to remedy “a situation that calls for a tourniquet.”

Mr. Firestone and Mr. Meade counseled residents not to be “frightened” by the April 1 deadline, and said that the Revaluation Group is “prepared to give people all the help they need” in filing appeals with the Mercer County Board of Taxation. Describing the process as “easy,” they said that under the form’s “reason for appeal” question, people need only to respond, “I couldn’t get that for my house.”

Neither Mr. Snyder nor Mr. Marks returned phone calls for this article.

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