Assessor presents the numbers

| 11 Jun 2012 | 04:45

WEST MILFORD — To a packed meeting room, Brian Townsend, the township's tax assessor, presented his facts and figures Wednesday night. He showed, with statistics from the past five months of real estate sales, that the township's goal in its recent revaluation - to bring assessments up to market value - was met.

However, that did not change much for the homeowners who were present, most of whom live on lakefronts and are facing sizable property tax increases this year because of the process. Some even say this may cause them to have to leave West Milford for good. Others question whether 51 sales, six of which are lakefront properties, are an adequate measure of the revaluation that has turned these homeowners into activists.

Understanding the data Townsend, who has been in his job with the township for 29 years, projected the figures on a screen for all to see. He explained that the goal of the revaluation is to place assessed value at market value. His statistics bore him out. He said that one way to measure whether the assessments were brought in line with values is through a sales ratio, which is achieved by dividing assessed value by the sales value. For example, if a house's assessed value is $100,000 and it is sold for $200,000, the sales ratio is 50 percent. If both values are $200,000, the sales ratio is 100 percent, which is the goal.

Of the 51 homes actually sold so far this year, with the new assessments in place, the sales ratio is 95.16 percent, with the average assessed value set at $253,400 and the average sale price at $266,300.

For the six lakefront sales in 2012, the sales ratio is 95.92 percent, with the average assessed value set at $340,600 and the average sale price set at $355,100.

Each lakefront home sold for above its assessed value.

The homes used in the calculations must meet certain criteria, Townsend said, including that they were on the market and had a willing buyer; no short sales are included nor are properties sold between family members.

Townsend did the calculation for the current active listings. The sales ratio for those 289 properties is 94.17 percent.

There are currently 37 properties under contract. The sales ratio for those is 97.01 percent. Conversely, the sales ratio for the 148 house sales from 2011 was 43.48 percent.

These figures, according to Townsend, lead to the conclusion that the revaluation was done correctly.

“The analysis I have completed indicates we are in a range of 95, 97 percent with assessments,” said Townsend. His conclusion: “The revaluation has resulted in uniformity and was done correctly by Appraisal Systems.”

Hitting home But this isn’t about statistics to the people in the audience. This is about their homes. Several speakers said their taxes will be going up thousands of dollars because of the revaluation.

“I understand how the numbers work and appreciate that my lakefront value has risen,” said one man. “My question is how do we accommodate for such a large figure?”

His taxes this year are increasing by $2,000.

Some have suggested a phasing in of the tax increases and there is a provision to do that. However, township attorney Fred Semrau said he doesn’t see that as the best avenue to pursue. The other taxpayers would be financially responsible for the increased taxes. But that doesn’t preclude the township from taking another look at areas somewhere down the road if the facts change.

Dwight Faulkner of Pinecliff Lake questioned the statistical significance of 51 home sales, six on lakefront, in a township with over 11,000 properties.

“Those two numbers aren’t statistically significant enough for them to go out on the carrier and say 'victory',” said Faulkner.

John Monteleone of Hewitt said if they look at all sales and not just those that are deemed acceptable, the situation looks different. He said 20 percent of sales in West Milford were short sales, where property is sold for an amount short of the balance of debt owed.

“That 20 percent impacts the other 80 percent,” said Monteleone.

The house he bought was on the market for years at $188,000; he eventually bought it for $105,000. The revaluation set his property value at $205,000 - that’s excluding the house that's on it.

David Bell of Hewitt said he doesn’t care what the assessment is, it’s his taxes that have him up in arms.

“I don't care if they assess me $10 million,” said Bell. “It's what I pay in taxes.”

He said his taxes have doubled in nine years and this year alone they will go up another 30 percent because of the revaluation.

“What are you doing actually to decrease the taxes for everyone here?” he asked. “We’re getting organized. Understand the power of the vote.”

Feeling threatened Terry Zielinski of Kitchell Lake said his property taxes will increase $1,700 thanks to the revaluation. And while that has him upset, he was incensed by a letter his attorney received from the township attorney, Fred Semrau. In it, Semrau explained that for those who do not decide to withdraw tax appeals against the township prior to the hearings, “the assessor will be prepared to defend these appeals and in fact, if warranted, request increases in values.” Zielinski and others saw this as a threat.

“This tells me if I don’t rescind my appeal I could get a further increase,” said Zielinski. “Well Mr. Semrau, are you threatening me if I don’t rescind my appeal?”

Semrau explained at an earlier meeting that appeals can go either way, with the county tax board having the ability to both decrease and increase values based on the evidence presented. Mayor Bettina Bieri Wednesday night said it was not meant to be a threat, just a notice that residents should realize they may get a higher assessment.

“It was meant as a factual statement,” she said.

Hard process There have been 779 tax appeals filed with the county by West Milford homeowners this year and the appeals have begun to be heard in the county (see box left). Townsend said the entire township has theoretically been brought up to market value.

“The mechanism is there for everyone to pay their fair share,” he said.

“This is a very hard process,” said Semrau, who, along with Townsend and a representative from the revaluation company, must defend the township’s assessment at the appeal hearings. “We are looking to get the right information to the county.” He added that if someone makes a valid case for a lower assessment, it is their duty to accept it.

“Everyone's goal is to get the fair value,” said Bieri.

What do you think of the process? Go to and share your thoughts.