WEST ORANGE, NJ - Residents upset about their tax assessments dominated much of Tuesday's West Orange Township Council meeting.
Resident Wendell Simpson of Hillside Avenue addressed the council on the subject of the tax burden on senior and low-income residents caused by the recent revaluation. In response to the insistence that there was nothing that could be done about these burdens, Simpson offered numerous proposals in a packet that he submitted to the council. Among his proposals were phase-ins of tax increases, a reduction of interest rates on delinquent property taxes, affordable housing trust fund grant financing, an additional payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) funds.
But Simpson was particularly offended by the assertion made by Mayor Robert Parisi at the previous town council meeting that West Orange was "winning" in its handling of tax appeals.
"I wasn't uneasy, I was upset with that statement," Simpson declared. "What is 'winning'? Is winning when you have these seniors or residents that are losing their homes or they're forced to move because the taxes are too high in the town? I don't see how the town should consider that winning." Simpson called the use of the word "winning" a "Charlie Sheen moment," in reference to the television actor's references to his personal life.
Mayor Parisi defended his language by placing it in the context of budgetary issues, explaining that by saying that West Orange was winning tax appeal cases, it meant that the township was increasingly successful in getting the revaluations correct and ensuring a solid tax base necessary for it to function.
"No one wants to pay taxes," Parisi admitted. "But the best way to judge whether the [revaluation] was done well is, 'Do values hold up?' Not only in the tax appeal process, but to they hold up in a cursory review?" He apologized for being insensitive but reiterated that the purpose of the tax revaluation was to make the tax burden as fair as possible for West Orange's residents. He also added that phasing in tax increases over time for some people would fail to make increases fair for others.
Councilman Sal Anderton noted that money for tax appeals is set aside in the budget, and that paying back more tax appeals would exceed the available amount of funds and place an even greater burden on tax payers. "So to the extent that the values hold, and to the extent that tax appeals are not successful, we all win," he said.
Rosary Morelli of Ralph Road had her own complaints about the revaluation, addressing the error that caused a mistake in the assessment of a 5600-square-foot property on Pleasant Valley Way that overvalued it by $2 million. Morelli recalled how the private company had given presentations to West Orange residents explaining how taxes would go up for some and down for others but wanted to know if there were any presentations explaining the process on how the information would be collected, checked and analyzed. Both Mayor Parisi and Councilman Joe Krakoviak sought to allay her concerns, noting that while the error had not been caught by computers, it had been still caught in time.
"The administration negotiated an agreement with the vendor to provide more oversight, and the council approved that," he said. Krakoviak added that the vendor had explained the process in various public meetings that Krakoviak lamented were poorly attended.
Tax collector Joanne Gagliardo took the opportunity at the meeting to announced a tax lien sale to collect delinquent taxes from investors based on a starting interest rate of eighteen percent, which would help prevent the taxes of those who pay to go up any further.
Clare Silvestri asked the council recalled Mayor Parisi's community meeting in June with residents of the St. Cloud section of town regarding municipally owned property on Ridgeway Avenue and the support from St. Cloud residents for an arboretum on the property, asking for an update on the issue. Noting that the land had been a former Christian church campus, Parisi said that the township had spent the last several months planning an arboretum with Montclair State University with a framework of a plan taking shape, and was "hopeful" that a more concrete plan can be formulated.
Nine of the ten resolutions were quickly passed prior to the end of the meeting, with one pulled for future debate. Councilwoman Susan McCartney requested a hold on a resolution that would pay back the Organon pharmaceutical company an escrow fee of $2500 for a Planning Board application regarding their facility at 375 Mount Pleasant Avenue. But while the property has since been redeveloped and is now a thriving medical office complex, McCartney noted that the state of New Jersey gave Organon an $850,000 grant to stay in West Orange and employ a certain number of people for fifteen years. Organon failed to do so.
"The state claimed that they have no oversight of that money," McCartney said. "I just think that's wrong." Council President Patty Spango expressed anger at how Organon left the property in a shambles.
In light of ongoing contacts with Organon's attorney over the escrow fee, Councilman Anderton supported setting it aside for the time being.
No ordinances were voted on at the meeting.
Also, Fire Department Chief Peter Smeraldo reported to the council that West Orange spent an estimated $1.8 million through fire, police, public works, and EMS services in dealing with Hurricane Irene based on damage assessments. "As of right now, the federal government can reimburse us for 75 percent of what our total will be, and we will work with FEMA to make a final determination," Smeraldo said.