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Some NJ residents are in for surprise as tax-filing deadline approaches

New Jersey traditionally is one of the states where the largest average tax refunds have been given out.

But as last-minute filers work out their tax obligations by the Monday deadline, they may find their refund is not as substantial as in previous years.

One of the biggest changes that took place impacting people’s income taxes last year was the passage of President Donald Trump’s overhaul of the tax code.

“If you are going to itemize doing your taxes, there is a cap on the amount of property tax and state income tax when combined at $10,000,” said Chuck O’Hara, a volunteer for the past six years with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program of Cape May County.

In a high-tax state such as New Jersey, where some homeowners’ property taxes alone are more than $10,000, the cap could increase filers’ taxable income and result in them paying more in taxes and getting a smaller refund.

Dianna Berry Frazier, of Pleasantville, who has been doing taxes for the past 16 years, said she sees more people doing worse after the most recent tax-code changes.

“I have more people being upset with me because last year and in other years, they received refunds. This year, they had to pay,” Frazier said.

Last year, the tax changes meant employers took less money out of people’s weekly paycheck, Frazier said.

If people received an extra $30 in their paychecks last year, they did not recognize it, Frazier said.

“An extra $35 or $25 in their paychecks cost them to have to pay this year in taxes,” Frazier said. “I’m one of those people who has to pay this year.”

With the new tax law, the biggest change has been in the standard deduction, said Mike Couch, southern New Jersey operations manager for the Campaign for Working Families.

Couch has been helping people with their taxes for seven years as part of that program and did taxes for 10 years before that on his own.

In 2017, the standard deduction was about $8,000, and personal exemptions for each person on a tax return were about $4,000. In 2017, the standard tax deduction plus-one exemption would have been $12,000.

In 2018, they eliminated the exemption but increased the standard deduction to $12,000 for singles, $18,000 for head of household and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly, Couch said.

“The people who were impacted the most were the families that had multiple children,” Couch said.

Under the previous system, parents with four children would have received a $4,000 exemption for each child and the spouse and $8,000 for a standard deduction for a total of $28,000, compared with $24,000 for a married couple filing this year with multiple children, Couch said.

“The larger the family size, they tended to be negatively impacted by the new tax law,” Couch said.

Frazier has been doing taxes long enough that she remembers when people used to fill out paper forms and not file electronically. Electronic filing causes people to wait closer to the last minute, she said.

“They know it will go right through, and they can still get their money within a short period of time,” Frazier said.

Atlantic City property revaluation coming

ATLANTIC CITY — The seaside resort will soon undergo its first property revaluation in more than a decade and only the second reassessment in the past 40 years.

Friday is the deadline for companies to submit bids to conduct Atlantic City’s revaluation, which was ordered by the Atlantic County Board of Taxation.

The city’s ratable base has shrunk by nearly 86% in 10 years, from $20 billion in 2008 to less than $3 billion last year. But even now, the city’s property base is still overvalued, based on a formula used by Atlantic County.

A similar situation exists in nearby Pleasantville, which is also overvalued and has been ordered by the Atlantic County taxation board to perform a revaluation.

Prior to the last citywide revaluation, which was ordered by a state Tax Court in 2005 and completed in 2008, the last property reassessment was done in 1978.

“(A revaluation) is very much needed,” said Margaret Schott, the Atlantic County tax administrator.

A revaluation is designed to establish fair property values to equitably distribute the tax burden.

Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, the agency that has fiscal oversight of Atlantic City, said the process would “significantly reduce the number of noncasino tax appeals that property owners file with the city.”

Council President Marty Small Sr. said it was “essential that people’s properties are assessed at the right amount,” because the city loses money every year from tax appeals.

In 2018, the city budgeted $1 million for property-tax appeals.

“Hopefully, the city’s ratable base will go up, which will be a benefit to the taxpayers,” said Small.

Since a contract has not yet been awarded to a revaluation company, a start date for the process has not been determined, Ryan said.

“We can say, however, that DCA and the city are looking to expedite the review and approval process so a revaluation can get underway as quickly as possible,” she said.

Small said he was “ambitiously optimistic that (the revaluation) can get done by 2020, but, if not, definitely by 2021.”

Atlantic City’s ratable base jumped from $8.1 billion to $20.1 billion following the 2008 revaluation. In 2010, the city’s tax base was $20.6 billion. By the time the state assumed fiscal oversight of Atlantic City in 2016, the tax base had fallen to $6.5 billion, a figure that included the resort’s casino properties.

The casinos now participate in a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, program that excludes them from the city’s reported ratable base.

In 2017, the base was $3.1 billion, excluding the casinos, county records show. Last year, the city’s ratable base was $2.88 billion. However, according to the equalization rate used by the county — the ratio of the total assessed value of properties in a community to those properties’ true market values — the city’s base is “overvalued” by more than 10%.

Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. said the combination of paying out “millions” in appeals and the lost tax revenue from undervalued properties creates a challenge for the city to fund essential needs, such as repaving roads or demolishing blighted properties. He said the city and the state have had to resort to “creative” solutions to allocate funding where it is needed.

“We need to create a sound understanding for what property values in the city really are,” said Gilliam. “A revaluation is another tool, in my opinion, which will allow the city to begin forecasting potential budgets going forward.”

Atlantic City residents' pleas for better roads getting limited results

ATLANTIC CITY — Catherine “Kitty” Gartrell is a former professional singer, who used her powerful voice to entertain in casinos and major cities around the world for decades.

But when Gartrell, 83, raised that voice to bring attention to what she calls the deplorable state of the street in front of her house — where speeders routinely hit potholes that shake her split-level home — she couldn’t get any action from her councilman or Mayor Frank Gilliam for about two years, she said.

Now Gartrell, who moved to Brigantine in the 1980s and then to the resort in 1997, hopes recent repaving projects on parts of Atlantic and Ventnor avenues are just the start of a bigger improvement project. But so far she hasn’t gotten an answer from the city about when her street will be fixed.

The Mayor’s Office offered Thursday to set up a time to talk about the city’s paving plan.

A new Stockton University poll shows Gartrell is not alone. Concerns about infrastructure are growing among residents across the state, the poll found.

“I pay $7,000 a year in taxes, for them to give you the runaround and tell you they don’t have the money (to fix the roads),” said Gartrell as she stood in front of deep ruts and potholes in the 1200 block of North Indiana Avenue.

The next block of Indiana is well paved, the result of South Jersey Gas doing work there a few years ago. The city has an ordinance requiring utilities to pave the entire block any time they open up the road for underground work, which has helped keep some city streets in better condition than others.

Charles Marandino LLC, of Milmay in Buena Vista Township, has started work on two contracts in the resort, said project manager Gary Giglio.

The city website has contracts signed by Marandino and the city in June 2018 to do street improvements on sections of Atlantic and Ventnor avenues for a total of about $1.1 million. But no one from the city responded to questions about whether those are the contracts involved in this work, and what funds were used.

The company has already milled and repaved Atlantic Avenue from Indiana to Kentucky avenues and started work Wednesday to do the same on Ventnor Avenue from Albany Avenue to Raleigh Avenue.

Giglio said only striping remained to be done on the Atlantic Avenue part, and paving work should be complete by Tuesday on the Ventnor Avenue section, with striping finished soon after.

Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said Atlantic City residents routinely ask him whether the county can pitch in and pay to repave some resort streets.

“The answer is unfortunately no,” said Levinson. “I would not be able to take county tax money to do municipal roads.”

Atlantic County has 375 miles of county roads to maintain, he said, “more mileage than the parkway and expressway end on end.”

The county also has to maintain 1,600 intersections and 175 bridges, he said.

“Every time I meet with a civic association (in Atlantic City), they talk about the horrendous streets,” said Levinson.

According to the Stockton poll, no one is thrilled about public infrastructure in New Jersey.

The poll released earlier this week found 45% of respondents rate state roads in fair condition, and 35% rate them in poor condition. Almost half say poor road conditions have cost them money for repairs, including flat tires from potholes.

The Stockton Polling Institute at the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy polled 632 adults in March.

Most polled thought the state’s bridges and tunnels were in better shape than the roads, with 63% saying they are in fair condition. But 38% said they’ve been concerned for their safety while driving over a bridge or through a tunnel in New Jersey.

While most think the roads need to be repaired, more people than not said they aren’t willing to personally spend more for the fix, 48% to 45%.

Trash-filled lots and boarded-up homes: Living beside blight in Atlantic City

Edward Lea / Staff Photographer  

Mary Cotton says she’s constantly calling the Sanitation Department about trash and debris around her home on Grammercy Place. ‘You pick it up, and the next day you have more trash,’ said Cotton, who bought her three-story house in 1999 after moving to Atlantic City from Philadelphia.

However, 80% expressed support for a federal infrastructure bill being discussed in Washington to the tune of $200 billion.

Those polled were split on how to pay for the improvements: higher tolls (21%), higher sales or income taxes (20%), new tolls (13%), or a gasoline tax increase (18%).

“New Jersey is a very high-tax state, and taxpayers already feel that they are tapped out,” said Michael W. Klein, interim executive director of the Hughes Center.

Gartrell, meanwhile, remains waiting.

Staff Writer Colt Shaw contributed to this report.

Edward Lea / Staff Photographer  

Claressa Shields professional boxer working out for her upcoming fight against Christina Hammer at the PAL in Atlantic City, NJ. Thursday April 11, 2019. Undefeated champions Claressa Shields (8-0, 2 KOs) and Christina Hammer (24-0, 11 KOs) go head to head in a long-awaited unification battle for the undisputed women’s middleweight title at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ. Saturday April 13, 2019. Press of Atlantic City / Edward Lea Staff Photographer

Just a meeting change? West Wildwood residents say it's a way to silence them

WEST WILDWOOD — Residents are demanding the return of the Friday night Borough Commission meeting, a decades-old tradition that allowed the maximum number of homeowners to attend — including second homeowners.

But the mayor and commissioners are holding fast to the new time of 3 p.m. Wednesdays. They changed it late last year in the midst of controversies involving Police Department lawsuits, allegations of conflicts in handling them and the tiny borough having to pay its police chief a $1.7 million award without the help of insurance.

Fewer than 600 people live in the borough, and its budget is just $2.69 million.

It’s the timing of the change that irks members of the Concerned Taxpayers of West Wildwood.

“They are really trying to make it difficult for people to attend. It’s our opinion they are trying to have the least amount of people there so that people don’t question what they are doing,” said Concerned Taxpayers Treasurer Susan Czwalina, who lives outside Philadelphia and owns a second home here. “We will continue to ask.”

Administrator Christopher Ridings said West Wildwood was the only community in the area that had been holding Friday night meetings.

“It’s my understanding it was tied to train service,” said Ridings. “It was an old-fashioned kind of thing.”

Mayor Christopher Fox, who is the administrator in neighboring Wildwood, did not answer a call for comment.

Ridings said decades ago a train from Philadelphia arrived about 6 p.m. Friday nights, and people would go right to the meeting.

The Concerned Citizens have begun videotaping meetings and putting them on their website to allow more people to see what’s happening there. Ridings said the borough has no intention of live-streaming meetings on its own website.

At the April 3 commission meeting, Fox ignored residents who said the commissioners should be ashamed of themselves for changing the meeting time, and accused them of doing it to avoid having to answer residents’ questions.

“I think the 3 o’clocks are working,” Fox said as the audience hollered back, “For you!”

Commissioners Scott Golden and Cornelius Maxwell supported Fox.

“Everybody is set,” said Fox. “Emails come to us, you get answers. I’m pleased about the way things are going.”

Again the audience responded, “What about us?” and “What about the taxpayers?” but Fox didn’t respond.

Last summer, about 200 people attended the meetings because of the lawsuits and the possible effect on the budget, said Czwalina. A typical winter turnout would be 50, she said, but this year with the change to Wednesday, that has fallen to about 20.

The taxpayer group is also concerned about the cancellation of all commission workshop meetings this year, where members discuss upcoming issues.

“The last one they had was Dec. 31. They have been scheduled, but they keep canceling,” Czwalina said. “We don’t know how they are conducting business without workshop meetings.”

Fox said at the April 3 meeting that each commissioner talks one on one with Ridings, so no two commissioners are meeting to discuss topics and no quorum or minutes are needed.

But since the budget, due to be introduced May 1, is being developed, Czwalina said residents should be hearing about financial issues.

Police Chief Jacquelyn “Jackie” Ferentz had filed a whistleblower suit against the borough and its former mayor, Herbert Frederick, over his alleged interference in the Police Department. But Frederick was eventually dropped from the suit.

The borough’s insurance company would not pay the $1.7 million court award announced last year to Ferentz, saying the borough had not adequately defended itself. Fox lived with the police chief at the time, although she has said it was not a romantic relationship. After Ferentz won her case, she also got her job back with a settlement for back pay.

So last year, the borough furloughed workers on Fridays as a cost-savings measure, in order to pay Ferentz $5,000 a month for about 200 months and her attorney about $18,000 a month for 42 months.

In April, the commission dropped the furlough, officials said, and moved workers to a four-day week at nine hours a day.

And this year, the award to Ferentz may have a much larger impact than it did last year, when the school board provided cost savings that minimized the overall tax increase.

The state Local Finance Board refused the borough’s request last year for permission to bond to pay the award, with Chairman Timothy Cunningham saying, “I disagree very strongly that the borough was operating and doing everything right. I think you’re doing an awful lot wrong,” according to a posted transcript of the Nov. 9 hearing.

The transcript also notes the initial jury award, reported at $1.165 million, had grown to more than $1.7 million when the final judgment was entered, according to borough bond counsel Matt Jessup.

Finance board members also questioned township officials on giving themselves a raise, as well as approval of a raise for Ferentz. Her salary went from $64,000 in 2014 to $101,000 in 2017, according to the transcript.

And last summer, a Class 2 police officer filed a whistleblower suit, alleging Fox had directed him not to write tickets for Fox’s supporters and friends.

“The budget will be introduced May 1,” said Czwalina. “It’s going to be pretty wild.”