WEST MILFORD — Commercial land owners in the township described getting their tax bills earlier this month as being 'blindsided' and are considering legal action before they pay the enormous tax increases they have received after the township-wide revaluation.
“We’ve all been blindsided,” said Maryann Minicus, owner of the Tuscany Brew House and spokesperson for the group of about 40 business owners who were present at the township council meeting Wednesday night. She said for every business owner present, there were many others who couldn’t be there.
Minicus said it is her opinion and that of many other business owners that the appraisals given by Appraisal Systems, Inc. (ASI), the company hired by the township to perform the revaluation, “are way off.”
For the first time in 24 years, the township ordered a revaluation in an effort to redistribute the tax burden more fairly among property owners. After years of successful challenges to assessments because of the drop in the real estate market, the mayor and council decided it would be fair to revalue the entire township. The county also required it. What’s happened is that lakefront home owners and business owners have felt the brunt of that redistribution, many to the point that they say they may have to close up shop.
Staggering increases “I can’t do it,” said Judy Ziegler who, along with her husband, owns the Town Tavern. “I’ve been here 40 years. You're taking my life from me.”
Ziegler said she filed an appeal and had her hearing last week. She spent money for an outside appraisal and an attorney to represent her. She said the ASI representative who assessed her property never came inside the building. The five comparatives used in her case included a storefront in Haledon and other buildings in Passaic and Sussex county that are not freestanding buildings like her own.
Ziegler’s taxes are set to rise from $30,000 a year to $48,000. Hers wasn’t the only story of staggering tax increases.
Rich Castronova’s shopping center is in a flood zone with much wetlands around it. His taxes were $36,000 and are set to go up to $72,000. There over 18 years, he said many of his tenants are months behind in their rent. He’s not throwing them out; he knows how tough it is running a business in this economy.
“At this rate, I don’t know what we’re going to do here,” he said.
John and Karen Ball are owners of a landscaping company. Their new tax bill showed an increase of over 200 percent, from $15,000 to $47,000.
“How do you increase someone’s taxes 200 percent?” asked Karen Ball.
Tom McCann has been in the township for close to 50 years. The owner of McCann's Mini Warehouses in Hewitt, his taxes are rising from $60,000 to $136,000. That’s about $20,000 additional each quarter. The taxes on the two homes he owns increased about $8,000 each, he said.
“People can't afford this,” said an impassioned McCann, who pointed out the deadline for filing an appeal was May 1 but tax bills were not sent out until July.
Like many of the business owners who spoke, McCann said they support the township activities and groups, donating to the ambulance corp and youth sports teams. What will happen when the businesses are not there for the township, he asked.
Council's hands are tied The business owners’ pleas didn’t fall on deaf ears. Each member of the council expressed their sympathy. But, as attorney Fred Semrau pointed out, there is nothing the council can do to change this. The assessor has provided statistics that bear out that the assessments are accurate - they fall within about 98 percent of the fair market value of the property.
Councilman Joe Smolinski, a business owner himself in another town, said he knows when a business gets hit with such a big tax increase they can’t pass it along in rent or services.
“We cannot afford to lose you guys. You are the heart of our community,” said Smolinski to the business owners.
He asked Semrau if there were any incentives the township could give to retain the businesses they have.
Semrau, who defends against the appeals for the township, admitted he was surprised by the amount of the increases in taxes to the business owners. But, he explained, even though the numbers are jarring, ultimately it is decided by the values of the properties. The process, he said, was done correctly and the township assessor, Brian Townsend, said the values are accurate. He researched how abatements could help, but that is only for improvements on businesses going forward. It doesn’t help the issue now. The May 1 appeals date has passed and the county won’t extend it. He said business owners should prepare to appeal for next year.
But that doesn’t help this year’s increase. And many said they simply cannot come up with the money to pay their taxes by Aug. 1, the day they are due.
It comes back to Newark As has been the case in the past, council members said something has to be done concerning the city of Newark, which is the biggest landowners in the township with the watershed property. Because of the Highlands Act, West Milford and other towns that contain watershed property, cannot improve on that land. However, the taxes they get for the watershed property is minimal. And Newark continues to appeal - and win - their assessment.
Mayor Bettina Bieri said she has lobbied to get things changed in Trenton so that communities protecting the watershed are justly compensated.
“We need to change the legislation (regarding watershed property),” said Bieri. “They take water and sell it to water companies and businesses. It is valuable land.”
She had suggested a charge that would come out to be about $12 per homeowner for those throughout the state that use the water. That would bring in millions of dollars to the towns that oversee the watershed but Trenton officials called it a tax and said they wouldn’t do it.
This is nothing new. The township has written letters and gone to Trenton many times to change this. Semrau said they’ve gone up to the state supreme court and its appellate court. Now might be the right time to make another trip, the council decided.
“Let’s go,” said Smolinski.