Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 35
 
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
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Some Questions on Criteria, Appeals, Other Issues from Revaluation Meeting

Carol S. Morrison
Riverside Drive

Revaluation Spawning Princeton’s Tea Party? Governing Bodies Should Show They Care

John Kelsey
Winfield Road

Review of Tax Data from Assessor’s Office Indicates Flawed Revaluation Favors Rich

Ken Fields
Linden Lane

Time to “Lighten Up” On the Messenger: A Disagreement and a Modest Proposal

Leo Arons
Chambers St.

Princeton YWCA Thanked for Recent Event Celebrating Women’s Suffrage Movement

Linda Sipprelle
Nassau Street


Some Questions on Criteria, Appeals, Other Issues from Revaluation Meeting

To the Editor:

I am enclosing the questions I raised at the public meeting Tuesday, August 24, 2010 in the Borough Hall regarding the revaluation concerns voiced by Borough and Township residents.

1. In March 2010, I spoke to one of the consultants at ASI who told me that one criterion they used in their process was “what could be built on the land.” His remark demonstrates that “gentrification” — assessing property based on its development potential — was an explicit desired outcome from the revaluation process:

• Who inserted this criterion, that land should be evaluated according to what could be built on it? Was it the Mercer County Board of Taxation or was it the Borough and Township of Princeton? In other words, who specified “gentrification” as a desired outcome of this tax revaluation process?

• Who wrote the contract that included this criterion, who signed it, and why was this criterion included?

• How does this criterion reflect voter/constituent wishes and the expressed desire of the two Princetons to retain their historic diversity?

2. In the rules governing appeals on the revaluations, it is stated that it is not allowed to separate the valuation of the land from the valuation of the house.

• Why not? By asserting this mandatory integrated approach, it is possible for assessors to assign inflated values to the property and not be challenged eg., for my property in Jugtown, a historic district (protected from ‘tear down’ by a developer), the land value was increased by 400 percent, the house value by 30 percent, and my new tax assessment is up by 19 percent. Why can’t property owners challenge exaggerated land valuations?

3. What criteria did the Mercer County Board of Taxation and/or Princeton Borough and Township use to evaluate the work presented by ASI?

• Who on the Borough/Township Councils was the contact person for managing the ASI contract implementation? i.e., who was the client project manager who guided and approved ASI’s revaluation implementation phases?

• At what time during the contract implementation process did the Borough/Township Councils become aware of the inequities arising from the process used by ASI?

• What statutory authority/process permits the Borough and Township to reject the work of a vendor who delivers inadequate performance on a contract?

4. What is different about the methodology and statistical models used 10 years ago for revaluation of Princeton properties vs. what was used by ASI?

• Who evaluated and approved the criteria and methodology used by ASI in the current revaluation process?

Carol S. Morrison
Riverside Drive

Revaluation Spawning Princeton’s Tea Party? Governing Bodies Should Show They Care

To the Editor:

My guess is that few of the people who attended the revaluation discussions or Princeton Fair Tax Committee meetings consider themselves Tea Party proponents. Nevertheless, these meetings attract a large number of people who are extremely angry about their taxes as a result of the recent revaluation. On August 24 Borough Council heard complaints about the real estate appraisal firm, the role of the Revaluation Committee, the size of Princeton University’s contribution, the tax assessor’s office and, especially, the governing bodies. Each speaker received loud applause at the end of his/her remarks. It was clear that the audience wanted action, not bromides. All they got was sympathy.

There will be no real ending to this “discussion on revaluation” until the municipal bodies show that this serious issue cannot be ignored by putting into place a qualified and active revaluation committee. Princeton is a town of involvement and collaboration, and while the Borough and the Township are two distinct governing bodies, one tax assessor and one appraisal firm was hired by both. Now they need to regain control of this issue by forming a committee to study what happened and explore what the two communities can do to help people now.

Too many residents feel that because they live in Princeton, they’re entitled to have their cake and eat it too. While our tax base is declining, our spending has not. The people who are being impacted the most are those who can least afford it. It is this group that makes up the Princeton’s Tea Party, and they are mad as hell. Princeton Borough and Princeton Township officials need to show that they care by taking action.

John Kelsey
Winfield Road

Review of Tax Data from Assessor’s Office Indicates Flawed Revaluation Favors Rich

To the Editor:

At Tuesday’s Borough Council meeting, Councilman Goldfarb stated that changes in the housing market are to blame for the higher taxes recently levied on the Borough’s less expensive homes, and that there is no indication the revaluation was flawed. However, a review of the data on which these new taxes are based obtained from the Assessor’s Office via a Public Records request indicates otherwise.

For single family homes sold in the Borough in 2009, property valued at less than $500,000 sold for 96 percent of its original list price; for property valued at more than $1,000,000 the selling price was 83.4 percent of the original list price. Using these figures for the Princeton listings at Zillow.com as of 23 August 2010, the nine properties listed for less than $500K (omitting those in foreclosure) have an approximate average fair market value of about $400K and were appraised at very slightly more than that. The 20 listed properties valued at over $1,000,000, however, tell a different story. Even assuming their listing prices are as far from their eventual selling prices as in 2009, they still have an average fair market value of $2,000,000.

Their average revaluation, however, was only $1,800,000, at least 10 percent less than what it should have been. We can assume that the other million dollar properties in town were reappraised similarly.

There are 375 properties in the Borough currently appraised at more than $1,000,000. Their total appraised value is $632,380,800 ($1.686 million on average). They should have been reappraised at more than $700,000,000, representing a tax loss to the Borough of more than $1.4 million per year. It is this money that the rest of us are having to pay. Some 500 homes, nearly a quarter of the Borough’s residences, saw their valuations and taxes increase dramatically. They are mainly located on Vandeventer, Lytle, John, Witherspoon, Tulane, Moore, Chestnut, Pine, Maple, Willow, Linden, Humbert, Greenview, Madison, Jefferson, and Harrison Streets. $1.4 million spread among 500 homes is $2800 per year for each.

Clearly this revaluation had less to do with “fair market value” than with social engineering, forced gentrification, geriatric cleansing, and class warfare. Regardless of what you call it, if it stands, Grandma is going to have to move.

Ken Fields
Linden Lane

Time to “Lighten Up” On the Messenger: A Disagreement and a Modest Proposal

To the Editor:

While I hardly celebrate an appraisal that has raised my taxes by 50 percent, I find myself disagreeing with much of what I hear from my Fair Tax neighbors. An appraisal is, after all, a reflection of the forces of supply and demand in the marketplace. It is not designed to be “fair,” just objective. Given the parameters of the appraisal project, the results could hardly have been different, in the main. Expensive homes were not, and are not, selling well, and more modestly priced homes have been in demand. That difference is inevitably reflected in market value. Nor do anomalies or aberrations necessarily discredit the whole; they are, by definition, atypical. In the imperfect world of appraising, where mass appraisals are probably the most imperfect of all, there are bound to be some square pegs forced into round holes. A more knowledgeable and sensitive delineation of the neighborhoods would probably reduce the number of these, but the basic issue of tax liability having become inversely proportional to ability to pay will remain. So let’s lighten up on the messenger, and get around to asking the Appraisal Client, our elected officials, why not one of them made any attempt to forestall this reassessment, knowing full well it would drastically shift the tax burden. Or why no least effort has been made to design an effective program to rescue those most at risk.

Meanwhile, here’s one possible program for discussion. Let anyone whose taxes have increased by more than, say, 10 percent enter a program that allows them, in exchange for a deed restriction defining their property as low income or moderate income housing, to defer all tax payments above that 10 percent cap until their property is sold. Forget those credit card interest rates I heard mentioned at Borough Hall and knock the interest down to 1.5-2 percent. Then take the resulting bundle of tax liens, which would otherwise represent a significant shortfall in revenue, and sell it annually, at full value, to the University. (If, by law, liens must be auctioned, low interest rates and deed restrictions would discourage competition.) This would achieve three significant goals. It would save those who would otherwise be forced from their homes. It would preserve diverse housing stock indefinitely (compare conservation easements on farmland). And, for the University, apart from modest interest income, it would demonstrate bona fides in support of diversity in the community, while doing much to erase its image as uncaring and parsimonious.

I realize there will be those who will view this as letting the University off the hook, since their purchase wouldn’t be an outright donation in lieu of taxes. But it would put the money where it is now needed most.

Leo Arons
Chambers St.

Princeton YWCA Thanked for Recent Event Celebrating Women’s Suffrage Movement

To the Editor:

Kudos and many thanks to Judith D. Hutton, CEO of the Princeton YWCA, and her staff, for hosting the memorable August 26 event which celebrated the 90th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which guaranteed women the right to vote. Featured in the celebration were a reception and the movie, Iron-Jawed Angels, which portrayed the courageous activists behind the women’s “suffrage” movement.

The role played by the suffragettes during World War I when they picketed the White House in an effort to get President Woodrow Wilson to support their cause can not be minimized. These women were jailed for “obstructing the sidewalk” and in jail were beaten, kicked, and given food with worms. Alice Paul, a leading suffragette, went on a hunger strike and was brutally force-fed. I, as well as other women who have had a lifetime to follow our dreams and to vote for leaders of our choosing, honor with sincere and grateful thanks, the courage, spirit, and tenacity of the American suffragettes.

Linda Sipprelle
Nassau Street

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