Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 35
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
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Residents Bring Revaluation Plight to Council

Dilshanie Perera

Neighbors, concerned citizens, and members of the Citizens Fair Tax Committee voiced their worries about the revaluation process and its results during last week’s Council meeting. Borough Hall drew a standing-room-only crowd for the three-and-a-half-hour-long meeting.

Resident Jim Firestone explained that “the citizens here tonight are here for two things … to ask Borough Council to acknowledge that there is a serious problem with the revaluation and to demonstrate that the revaluation is systematically flawed.”

Numerous residents of the Borough and Township highlighted cases in which land values had skyrocketed, while also pointing out comparable sales data that were taken from other neighborhoods in calculating the assessments.

Lytle Street resident Jackie Swain said that after she appealed her assessment to the County, her home was revalued by $108,000 less than the amount she had received from Appraisal Systems.

In her study of half houses in the area including Jefferson and Moore Streets, Greenview Avenue and Humbert Street, as well as the tree streets, Tina Clement concluded that “half house owners were penalized in this current tax assessment.” Citing the example of her own house, which sits on one half of a 0.12-acre lot, she said that the combined assessment of her home and that of her neighbor’s was $736,000, significantly more than owners of single houses or duplexes that sit on larger properties in the same neighborhood.

Moore Street resident Tony LaPlaca noted that after renovating his house, it was revalued at just over $468,000. He was perplexed to find that in the most recent appraisal, the same home was valued at $1.3 million. “There are homes in the neighborhood that are in similar situations, and there are also others that went down significantly.”

Having lived in Princeton for 38 years, Dale Meade said that he is concerned “about the shift of the tax burden from multi-million dollar homes to very modest homes where the tax burden has doubled in many cases, and increased by 27 percent on average for the homes valued in the lowest 20 percent in the Borough.”

Pointing out potentially worrisome trends in the comparison between the assessments and the most recent sales prices, Mr. Meade said that looking at the unadjusted data from mid-April to mid-August of this year, the scatter in the data, or the coefficient of deviation, is 10.4 percent. “If it gets to 15 percent, we have to do the revaluation all over again.”

“What is of greatest concern are the systematic errors and biases in [Appraisal Systems, Inc.]’s (ASI) extraction method and revaluation process,” Mr. Meade said.

Given the results of the revaluation, former School Board President Alan Hegedus warned that “the diversity in Princeton is in danger of being erased.”

Carol Morrison told Council that she is seeing a 19 percent tax increase due to this assessment, but that her land value has jumped 400 percent. Not being able to challenge land value separately from overall assessment value was cited as a frustration in the tax appeals process.

“That is the essence of where the errors occur,” noted Eleanor Lewis, regarding the basic site values for the land. She declared that Borough Council is responsible for finding answers to resident questions about the assessments and rectifying errors.

“You contracted with this company, and you paid for it with taxpayer money,” added Bernadine Hines. “You do have a fiduciary responsibility to find out what has gone wrong.”

Elected officials displayed different levels of urgency with respect to residents’ stories, presentations of data, and exhortations.

“It’s too soon to draw any hard and fast conclusions,” Council member David Goldfarb said. “Sales correlated with higher priced homes just as they correlated with lower priced homes between 1996 and 2009.” He urged those present to “watch the data” and wait to “gather at least a year’s worth of data … there were clearly errors within this process, but not any indication of systematic failure.”

By contrast, Council member Jenny Crumiller remarked that there are “enough numbers to show there is a trend going on … I think we should redo the revaluation.” She compared making another effort at assessing properties to getting a second opinion at the doctor’s office.

Barbara Trelstad acknowledged a “fundamental misunderstanding about basic land values” and encouraged a look into the claim mentioned by Anne Neumann that ASI was making offers to revalue properties to those en route to court at the County level.

Listing three avenues for moving forward, Roger Martindell suggested asking the Borough attorney whether or not they could “throw out” the current revaluation. “Is it even legally possible?” he asked. Approaching the University for negotiations into a greater payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) contribution, and meeting with colleagues on Township Committee to devise programs for more shared services, were his other strategies.

Citing a plan mentioned by Ms. Crumiller earlier in the meeting, Kevin Wilkes said he supported assessing 25 percent of properties every year, and “building upon this basis to correct all the errors.”

Council President Andrew Koontz urged residents to continue the appeals process, noting that “it is important that we hear everything.”

According to Tax Assessor Neal Snyder, so far five percent of Borough residents have appealed their revaluations. “That is normal,” he added.

Council passed a resolution addressing the payment of delinquent taxes. The new law reduces the interest rate on delinquent taxes from 18 percent to 6 percent for the first $15,000 of property taxes. Amounts owed above $15,000 would be charged the regular rate of 18 percent.

ASI’s response to Borough Council and Township Committee’s open letter can be found at Letters from residents regarding revaluation can be found in this week’s Mailbox section as well.

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