Atlantic County and state officials are ready to renew a fight over countywide tax assessments.
Democratic and Republican officials agree the countywide system is needed to better accurately assess properties, but no one can agree on how it should be done.
Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, introduced a bill last week that would shift the responsibility for property-tax assessments in Atlantic County from municipalities to the county through a single appointed assessor and deputies, a move he says would save millions of dollars for taxpayers.
Current tax assessors in each municipality would be eliminated in the first three years of the bill, replacing them with county assessors 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 a revaluation 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.
Gloucester County has a program like that in place. This bill would be an extension of that program.
Mazzeo said if his plan had been in place years ago, it may have eliminated the need for the payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, that Atlantic City casinos are locked into for 10 years.
Freeholder Chairman Frank Formica and Vice Chairman John Risley oppose the plan, instead preferring a plan they formed with 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 plan would leave local assessors in their jobs and add a county staff of 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, Formica said.
The Risley plan does not need the state Legislature’s approval because it wouldn’t be a complete takeover of the system.
Formica said the Mazzeo plan could cost even more because there is no limit on how many deputy assessors could be hired. He also doesn’t believe the state will reimburse the county for the revaluations.
“Last time I checked, the state was broke,” he said. “They don’t have the money for this.”
Risley said he believes the Gloucester County model wouldn’t work for Atlantic County because Atlantic County has nearly 30,000 more line items than Gloucester County does. He said Atlantic County would have to hire 25 to 30 deputy assessors to accommodate the Mazzeo plan. Gloucester County has 22 deputy tax assessors, he said.
“And all that is not including the fleet of cars, equipment and office space that you would need,” he said. “ I also don’t believe the state will pay us back. The bail reform didn’t save us money; and we didn’t get the 13.5 percent of the PILOT. Why should we trust the state now?”
Mazzeo, meanwhile said his plan would save money for the taxpayers and not add red tape to an already complicated process.
“You won’t have to do revals very often because it will be watched by the county,” Mazzeo said. “This is one shared service that really makes sense, especially with the technology available.”
County Executive Dennis Levinson, meanwhile, said he prefers a plan that gives the county control over municipal assessments.
“We would still be in the same position because we wouldn’t control the local assessors,” he said, adding that he thinks Mazzeo should present his plan in front of the freeholder board for a public hearing.