New Jersey municipalities - especially those at the shore - are facing a perfect storm of tax appeals.
As a result of the collapse of the housing bubble, tax appeals were already up dramatically, as homeowners who saw their property values drop sought relief from outdated assessments. And the uncertainty in the real estate market caused by Hurricane Sandy means those appeals won't stop anytime soon.
The state Department of Community Affairs says tax appeals have gone up by more than 400 percent since 2006. And municipalities, as the tax-collecting entity, are responsible for paying all refunds for the current tax year to property owners who successfully appeal, even though property taxes also finance county governments, schools and fire districts. Municipalities are also responsible for the full legal costs of contesting tax appeals.
Recently The Star-Ledger analyzed state data and reported that nearly 70 percent of all tax appeals filed in 2012 were successful. Appeals make news when they result in refunds in the millions of dollars for large businesses - such as Atlantic City's casinos - but they all add up. The Star-Ledger reported that last year about 116,000 tax appeals were filed by the April 1 deadline, the highest number in more than 20 years. They resulted in nearly $5 billion in reduced assessments.
With the number of appeals growing so rapidly, towns have had to scramble to patch holes in their budgets - laying off workers or bonding to pay refunds.
So it's easy to see the logic of a bill (S1896/A1503) sponsored by state Sen. Anthony R. Bucco and Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, both R-Morris, Somerset. The bill would require counties, school districts and fire districts to share the pain and help pay those tax refunds when appeals are successful.
Admittedly, it's a bit of a Sophie's choice. Counties and school districts are no more able to pay unexpected refunds than municipalities are. It
doesn't seem like a great tradeoff to lose teachers instead of police officers or county workers instead
of city workers, but at least it would be more fair.
What could also help is an idea being tried by Monmouth County, which has shifted the deadline for tax appeals from April to Jan. 1. That way government bodies will know how much assessed value they will actually have before they go through their budgeting process. Upper Township, in Cape May County, has saved money by handling informal appeals through the township tax assessor's office before the end of the year, reducing the number of appeals in April.
Until the housing market settles down - and revaluations can bring property values in line - the best officials can do is plan better for tax refunds, and share that burden more fairly.