Local officials are encouraged by recent movement on securing a plan that would reform the way tax assessing is done in Atlantic County, which would leave behind a system that has led to thousands of tax appeals and millions of dollars in refunds since 2010.
At an Atlantic County Mayor’s Association meeting in the spring, the mayors unanimously said they favor moving to a countywide system. Following the meeting, the association formed a committee that has worked all summer and fall trying to create a plan that would be the best fit for Atlantic County.
The trick has been narrowing down what existing plans could work in forming a plan for the county.
“We have been doing a lot of research looking at how other counties and states have done this,” Egg Harbor Township Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough said. “(The plan) is going to reduce challenges with tax appeals. The amount of tax appeals the county has had is obscene.”
The bipartisan committee includes McCullough, Absecon Mayor John Armstrong, Pleasantville Mayor Jesse Tweedle and members of the Atlantic County Board of Taxation, among others.
The committee will determine what they believe works best for the county and will give a formal recommendation to the Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders. McCullough said he hopes to give the recommendation before the end of the year, but there is no official timetable.
Right now, the committee is looking at plans that include one produced by Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, and one from the freeholders. They also are looking at tax assessing systems in Monmouth County, Palm Beach County in Florida, and one from Arizona, McCullough said.
Mazzeo’s plan requires passing legislation in Trenton and mimics a plan Gloucester County uses. It calls for eliminating municipal assessors within three years and replacing them with a county assessor and deputies. The county assessor would be appointed by the county executive.
All municipalities that have not undergone a revaluation in the past five years would be required to undergo one in the first three years of the law. The county would pay for the revaluations up front and be reimbursed by the state over three years through the SHARE Program.
The SHARE program, however, has not been funded by the state since 2010.
Revaluations for the remaining municipalities would cost the county about $8.2 million, according to a legislative fiscal estimate produced by state’s office of legislative services.
The freeholders, meanwhile, put forth a plan that would keep the assessors in their jobs and add a county staff of four or five field workers and a supervisor to collect data on properties to feed information and help local assessors keep values current.
The plan would cost $480,000 the first year and $380,000 to $400,000 every year after.
The plan was drafted by a committee that included current and former freeholders, Atlantic County Counsel Jim Ferguson, Atlantic County Administrator Marge Schott and Diane Hesley, the Association of Municipal Assessors of New Jersey’s Atlantic County president.
The Monmouth County plan is similar to the freeholders’ plan in that it would keep the assessors in their jobs and would not require legislation. However, the plan in Monmouth County only assesses residential properties. That wouldn’t work for Atlantic County because of the casinos in Atlantic City, McCullough said.
The county plan will have to factor in the casinos because the payments in lieu of property taxes, or PILOT legislation, will expire in nine years. It could also be ruled unconstitutional if the county wins its lawsuit against the state to terminate the legislation.
The plan in Palm Beach County involves an elected property appraiser. The appraiser in Palm Beach County, Dorothy Jacks, said in a recent newsletter to taxpayers that the appeals have been less than one percent of all the properties around the county.
“I have a property in Palm Beach County, and they have been very successful with this for many years,” McCullough said.
The high number of appeals is widespread in Atlantic County, which has a foreclosure rate among the highest in the nation.
In 2016, there were more than 9,100 tax appeals countywide. About half of those came from Atlantic City.
The number of appeals in 2016 was down from some prior years — there were nearly 14,000 in 2013 — but it still can be troubling for municipalities.
Ventnor, for example, lost millions in ratables in 2016 after facing 988 appeals. In 2015, there were 923 appeals by Ventnor property owners, according to previous reports.
Pleasantville property owners filed 650 appeals in 2016, more than double the 294 filed in 2015, according to previous reports. Owners in Egg Harbor Township filed 819 appeals, a slight increase from 815 in 2015.
Mazzeo said whether the committee chooses his plan or not, he’s happy there is movement on the issue.
“I’m encouraged because this is finally being done,” he said. “The goal is to make sure the plan is the right thing for the taxpayers of Atlantic County.”