Lobbyist to take on Newark

| 23 Aug 2012 | 12:42

— With unanimous consent, the township council is pursuing hiring a lobbyist to persuade the state legislature to change the laws regarding the way Newark watershed property is appraised and taxed.
The council has received a proposal from William Pascrell III, a partner with the firm Princeton Public Affairs Group, Inc. (PPAG), headquartered in Trenton. According to the PPAG.com Web site, it is one of the most powerful and productive bipartisan firms in the state, offering a range of services in governmental service, policy development, business and political advocacy.
Pascrell is the son of Democratic Congressman Bill Pascrell, who has been in the statehouse since 1996.
The hope is to have PPAG convince the state legislature to either put a surcharge on the water or to change the way the land is taxed.

Powerful Newark

This move comes after years of the governing body trying to effectuate change through the courts and with trying to lobby themselves. The mayor and members of the council have approved resolutions and made trips to Trenton to try and get the legislature to see the inequity in how the Newark watershed property is taxed. For decades, Newark has appealed its assessments, winning time after time. In 2011, Newark's property was assessed at $25,244,300; in 2012 the assessment fell to $24,308,300. But the big difference came in the taxes paid. The township received nearly $1.6 million in taxes from Newark in 2011; In 2012, they will receive $822,107 because of settlements of appeals filed for 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Newark is the largest landowner in the township with 16,481 acres or about 14 square miles of property.

Township appeals have failed

For years, decades really, the township has appealed to the state to change things. West Milford and other towns - Ringwood, Jefferson and Hardyston - are the stewards of the watershed land that supplies millions throughout the state with their water supply. In the case of West Milford, Newark sells the water it receives from West Milford to its customers at a profit of millions of dollars every year. West Milford is restricted from any development on the land surrounding the watershed, losing out on possible tax dollars for the township. And with Newark appealing its assessments year after year and winning, the revenue to the township from that land continues to decrease.
Township attorney Fred Semrau explained that land throughout the town is assessed at its highest or best use. In the case of the watershed, it is appraised as if it is just for watershed, even though it generates millions of dollars for Newark.
And with some taxpayers reeling from the township's revaluation, the council was pushed to do more to take the burden off the residents.
"Newark is a revenue generator," said Councilman Joe Smolinski. "Whether it's water or oil, it doesn't matter. They're making money on it, selling it. We've got to change the way to tax their land. It's a cash cow for them."

Taking action

Councilman Mike Ramaglia brought up the idea of hiring a lobbyist about a year ago but the council didn't discuss it seriously until a few weeks ago. All on the council were unanimous in their support to move forward in hiring a lobbyist. They realize there is some housekeeping to do before that. First, they have to amend their Pay-to-Play ordinance, adopted in 2006, so it will allow the township to hire a lobbyist. They plan to meet with Pascrell at a public meeting to discuss what his firm can offer and what the township needs. And the township will seek participating from the other communities affected by the watershed rules. This will not only help the township financially with paying the tab for the lobbyist but also increase the probability of having their voices heard. It won't just be West Milford requesting the change, but a broader base of constituents.
Mayor Bettina Bieri has done her share of lobbying for a water surcharge or a change in the laws, speaking at governor's roundtables, to the legislators and to the Senate finance and budget committees.
"To date, our own representatives in the senate and assembly have not supported the concept, so I believe it is indeed time to utilize the skills of a lobbyist in our efforts to bring equity and fairness to the communities tasked with protecting the water supply for half of New Jersey's population," said Bieri.
Councilman Lou Signorino is also in favor of this approach, although he would continue to try other ways at the same time.
"I'm eager to see what can happen with the lobbyist," said Signorino. "But I'm still advocating to knock on (Gov. Chris) Christie's door. It's unfair. That's really what it is."
What's next
The township is contacting other municipalities to see if they would be interested in signing on with them. Pascrell will make a presentation to the council; no date has been set. The council will work on changing its pay-to-play law, allowing them to hire a lobbyist.
The next meeting of the township council is Sept. 5.