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Vol. LXV, No. 18
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
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Princeton Fair Tax Group Calls Revaluation “Flawed,” Requests New Assessment

Dilshanie Perera

The Princeton Fair Tax Revaluation Group contested the findings of the governing body-appointed Revaluation Commission, which stated in a recently released report that the 2010 property revaluation in Princeton was “difficult to challenge as improper in its methods or unreasonable in its results.” At a public meeting last week, the Fair Tax group questioned assessment methodology and outcomes, analyzed the mitigation efforts put in place, and demanded that a new revaluation be enacted.

Citing the joint Revaluation Commission’s document, Dale Meade said that “if we address only the commission’s recommendations in this report, we won’t address the fundamentally flawed system.”

The Fair Tax group pointed out the “errors, obvious inconsistencies suggestive of systematic failures in the assessment process,” and challenged the use and determination of land values for each property. The land values “drove the shift of the property tax redistribution” to a greater share of the tax burden being shifted toward lower-priced homes.

Additionally, while Fair Tax group members have requested calculations and data under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) from assessment company Appraisal Systems Incorporated (ASI), as well as municipal Tax Assessor Neal Snyder, they said that the specific numbers and tabulations had not yet been disclosed.

“The problem with ASI’s work was that they relied on data from too few sales for which they didn’t have adequate statistics,” Mr. Meade said, adding that “my feeling is that we don’t know what they did.”

A more thorough analysis of Princeton University taxable properties was called for by Jim Firestone, who noted some inconsistencies in the way the Stanworth property was characterized. With the assessor calling it “one big piece of land” according to Mr. Firestone, “they are paying much less in taxes as compared with the Birch and Leigh Avenue properties right next door,” he said.

After filing an appeal on the Stanworth property with the County, Mr. Firestone reported that the county representatives told him he would have to pay $3,000 to appeal all the individual properties of Stanworth. “What is [the University’s] fair share really,” he wondered.

In her analysis of subsequent action taken by the municipal assessor following the 2010 revaluation, Kip Cherry emphasized the fact that there were “very few sales in each neighborhood.” Legally, under the compliance plan enacted by the assessor, he can adjust up to 50 percent of properties in Princeton. In the Borough, 321 properties in 9 neighborhoods out of a total of 2,563 properties were adjusted, with some valuations going up. In the Township, 1,177 properties in 22 neighborhoods out of 5,590 were adjusted.

Ms. Cherry questioned the basis upon which the assessor changed some properties in a given neighborhood and not others. “The compliance plan was supposed to create some relief, but it hasn’t done that,” she said.

“Citizens deserve more transparency as to how these things work,” Ms. Cherry pointed out, wondering whether other numbers were being added and subtracted in to make the numbers work.

Mr. Meade observed that under the initial revaluation, 25 percent of neighborhoods had no sales and another 25 percent had one sale.

Currently, the Fair Tax group is consulting with its legal counsel to determine whether a lawsuit can be brought to the governing bodies. Lawyer William Potter noted that individual tax payer appeals are not an “adequate remedy for ‘systemic flaws’” and that the Fair Tax group “has uncovered numerous examples of systematic errors, anomalies, unexplained assumptions, absurd results.”

“These issues add up to what courts may call ‘arbitrary and capricious decision-making,’” Mr. Potter noted, saying it is “the basis for overturning municipal decisions that are not soundly reasoned and not adequately supported by substantial credible evidence.” He recommended that the group draft a complaint and evidence list and seek a settlement from Township Committee and Borough Council prior to filing a lawsuit.

Jim Floyd said that “the revaluation was flawed and there are victims. We don’t want an oppressive action to cause undue hardship to our neighbors.” Mr. Meade suggested that “the residents will have to lead the way and hopefully the governing bodies will follow.”

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