Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 44
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
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Fair Tax Committee Reviewing Each Facet of Revaluation Process

Ellen Gilbert

The Princeton Property Fair Tax Committee (PPFT) met last week to bring members of the community up to date on their efforts to address what are seen by many as inequities in the recent revaluation process.

“The controversial results are raising concerns throughout the community,” reports the Committee at its “Princeton Tax Info” website, “Tax burdens are shifting disproportionately to lower and middle income properties. Many are seeing tax increases over 25 percent, and some are nearly double. All are worried about the dramatic challenges being posed both to individual pocketbooks and community diversity.”

In an interview following last week’s meeting, founding member James Firestone was quick to dispel any notion of PPFT’s collaborating with, or being superseded by, the recently created Borough/Township revaluation task force.

“We don’t really want to be a part of their group,” he observed. “We believe that our function is to be a watchdog of this process, independent of government, because government has been sort of sweeping things under the table.”

“They can’t do what we’re doing,” said Mr. Firestone, describing the expertise that the group’s leaders and members bring with them. He cited his leadership of the last real estate board, former head of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab Dale Meade’s facility with statistics, and Jim Floyd’s accumulated experience as former Township mayor and community activist as making them “well-qualified to get to the bottom of this.”

“Getting to the bottom” means uncovering what appear to be “systematic flaws” in the revaluation process. “When you can look and see disproportionate patterns in a landscape, something is wrong,” Mr. Firestone explained.

To illustrate this point, the committee has created color-coded neighborhood maps that throw disparities in revaluation patterns into stark relief. In one, portions of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood in the Township have clearly been appraised at significantly higher rates than comparable houses in the same neighborhood in the Borough. “Smaller, older homes on Birch and Leigh in the Township increase by an average of 55 percent,” while the “rest of Witherspoon-Jackson in the Borough increased by an average of 26 percent,” it concludes. “Notice west end homes on Hodge, Cleveland, and Westcott decrease by zero to 30 percent,” a comment on the map adds.

Other inconsistencies turn up on all of the maps, which will be posted on the Committee’s website. “When you look closely, it doesn’t hold together,” Mr. Firestone observed.

While not seeking to blame anyone for these disparities, Mr. Firestone said that their extent suggests “sloppiness” in the revaluation process. There are, for instance, cases where “active” houses that were yet to be sold were used in coming up with “comparable” prices. Skewing occurs when the value of a local “mega-mansion” is allowed to drive up the overall assessments of much smaller homes in an area.

The ”extraction” method, in which land values wield the greatest influence, is another source of incongruities resulting in favorable outcomes for developers, as is the use of non-usable deed transactions.

Doing all this research leaves little time for public relations, said Mr. Firestone. “We were too busy looking at the maps to do much publicity for last week’s meeting,” he observed. Nevertheless, he said, about 70 people turned out for the meeting in Township Hall.

The group’s determination to proceed systematically was reflected in the meeting’s agenda, where it was established early on that audience questions would be taken only after a fairly detailed delineation of the variables being considered. “This is how things are unfolding: one little piece at a time,” said Mr. Firestone.

The collaborative nature of the group, and their respective strengths, were evident as Mr. Meade examined issues relating to ASI’s performance, especially with respect to their contract with the two municipalities. The contract was for over three-quarters of a million dollars, Mr. Meade pointed out. “You’d think they would pay a little attention.” He too cited “sloppy work by ASI,” as well as “shifting methodologies” from those used in past revaluations. Mr. Meade concluded that the terms of the contract were not fulfilled, and that ASI “should be held accountable.”

Ed Schrayer spoke of the difficulty of obtaining precise data from ASI on its methodology, but sounded hopeful that more will be forthcoming.

Kip Cherry described the results of the appeals process, which, she noted “is not a done deal.” Appeals can be made again next year. The reductions that have been made, she said, are “not very large.”

Among the committee’s ultimate goals is “helping the Assessor redo the assessment in part — this time by PPFT being there to oversee.”

Mr. Firestone later said that although he has been in the real estate business in Princeton since the early 1970s, he could not think of a previous instance in which a revaluation has gotten so much attention. “It was never this egregious,” he said.

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