WEST MILFORD — With some residents sounding more and more desperate as the Aug. 1 deadline looms closer for third quarter tax payments, the Lakefront Property Owners of West Milford has organized to fight the revaluation as a whole, bringing in a forensic appraiser and attorney to help figure it all out. Last Saturday, some 200 residents gathered at a meeting sponsored by the group, asking questions about the appeals process. The town-wide revaluation occurred in 2011 and shifted a large part of the tax burden to lakefront and commercial property owners. Many private homeowners are facing thousands of dollars in increased taxes due to the revaluation, while commercial owners have been hit even harder in the process, some seeing their taxes more than doubled. After the township assessor signed the new assessment earlier this year agreeing to the values, it became law. Some have suggested starting over, throwing out the new numbers altogether, or phasing the new figures in over time; those are not possibilities, according to township attorney Fred Semrau. So instead, the group will have experts look at how Appraisal Systems, Inc. (ASI), the company hired by the township, arrived at the new assessment numbers and challenge the process as a whole.
Forensic appraiser, attorney speak
Seven hundred and seventy homeowners in West Milford are appealing their assessments this year, a huge number; nearly 60 percent of them - 460 - are lakefront homeowners, according to Bob Moshman, a West Milford attorney who is handling many of the appeals. Arthur A. Linfante of Value Research Group, LLC, a real estate analysis consultant from Livingston, and Robert Giancaterino, an attorney with Skoloff & Wolfe also of Livingston, are experts in the field and they spoke at the meeting, answering questions about upcoming tax appeals. The homeowners group is close to hiring Linfante to do a forensic analysis of the procedures used by ASI, according to Terry Zielinski, one of the first lakefront homeowners to bring the issue of increased taxes due to the revaluation to light. Linfante has 30 years of experience as an appraiser and does forensic analysis. Many home and business owners have complained that ASI incorrectly categorized their properties during the revaluation process, listing non-existent amenities and comparing them to dissimilar properties. Many have said a premium of about $90,000 was added across the board to the assessments of homes on the lakes. Linfante will look at the procedures used and determine if indeed the process was flawed. “We believe there’s a lot that ASI has done wrong,” said Bob Moskin, one of the organizers of Lakefront Property Owners of West Milford. “It’s not fair and well beyond the scope of what anyone ever imagined.”
Appeals are ongoing While most have their appeals coming up in the next four to eight weeks, some in the township have already had their day. Ken Ernst, a lakefront homeowner and a Realtor with Century 21 in West Milford, has already appeared before the tax appeals board. Ernst said his case was dismissed because the comparables he brought hadn't been submitted seven days before the hearing, as is required (see box). “It was my fault,” said Ernst. “I didn’t submit the comparables beforehand.” Ernst is looking at an over $4,000 increase in his taxes this year. This third quarter bill, which is due on Aug. 1, is an actual bill and makes up for any short estimate from the first two quarters. Ernst will appeal again next year.
Not much success yet Moshman said for every reduction in assessment of $30,000, the homeowner will save $1,000 in taxes. Many he's represented so far have seen smaller reductions. And after the appeal to the county tax board, homeowners may then file another appeal with the tax court on the state level if they are not satisfied. Moshman is representing many homeowners and business owners, including the Town Tavern, whose new assessment is $1.2 million. The new assessments are supposed to be actual market value. He said the owners of the Town Tavern have had their establishment on the market for over a year, first at $900,000 and dropping it to $760,000. That asking price includes the building and land, the business and all of its contents, the liquor license and an adjacent parcel of land. “The assessments are just not right,” he said.
Funding needed With 400 people signed up with the Lakefront Property Owners of West Milford, Moskin said it is imperative that each person who signed on pay the $100 fee to help in the fight. “We are about to hire a forensic appraiser and an attorney,” said Moskin. “We need money; we need to have enough funds to pay for this.” If every member chipped in, he believes the group would have a fighting chance in this battle against ASI. “There are more foreclosures, more walkaways, more short sales than ever before, and these guys are coming along and upping our taxes like this?” said Moskin. “It’s not fair and people are going to lose their homes because of this. This is one of the worst economic times. Something is so wrong with this.”