ATLANTIC CITY — Concerns and frustrations over a surprise tax increase on property owners as well as code enforcement of sober-living homes and short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods dominated discussion at Wednesday's City Council meeting.
Howard Markman, an Atlantic City resident who lives on the beach block of John Seedorf Lane in Lower Chelsea, said his tax bill increased by nearly $4,000, a fact he only learned about third-hand and confirmed with news reports. Markman requested a public meeting so residents could get a detailed explanation of why they were not given any advanced notice of the tax increase and what the plan was to address it.
"I understand that the City Council has done its part to keep the taxes level, but, as a citizen, we look at the totality of the tax burden and we don’t really know who to turn to," he said.
Leading up to the adoption of the city budget, state and city officials boasted about the municipal tax rate remaining flat, which it did. But the county and school rates are up a combined 45 cents per $100 of assessed value. The average resort home, valued at $150,000, will pay a tax bill of $5,850 this year, up $676.50 from last year, according to the Atlantic County Board of Taxation.
The tax increase was caused by two things — the loss of significant appeal refund credits from the county and a shrinking ratable base in the city — that caught officials off guard when the final figures were calculated, Atlantic County Tax Administrator Margaret M. Schott previously told The Press.
Property owners must pay the surprise increase over the course of two quarterly bills, the first of which was mailed in early August.
Council President Marty Small Sr. addressed the tax increase at the onset of the public meeting and maintained that "City Council did its job." He later added that "we're not here to point fingers."
"I can assure you that no one up here (on the dais), no one from the state, or anyone near or far is taking this situation lightly because of the progress we've made," Small said. "We're going to do the absolute best job that we can to remedy this situation."
Albert Ostrich, another resident on the beach block of John Seedorf Lane, said his taxes were going up nearly $6,000 but he had the added problem of living near a drug-and-alcohol recovery home. Ostrich was one of more than a half-dozen homeowners who spoke out against the appearance of more and more treatment homes, that include sober living homes and halfway houses, in residential neighborhoods.
"Now my taxes are going up $6,000 and I have to come outside and look at this property? I think it's disgusting," Ostrich said.
A recently opened sober living home on Tallahassee Avenue that is operated by the Hansen Foundation, a 501(c)(3) that runs similar facilities throughout South Jersey, may prove to be the tipping point for city officials. A notice to vacate the property was issued shortly after residents moved in several weeks ago but Hansen has not complied.
The organization believes that a city ordinance prohibiting sober living facilities from operating within 660 linear feet of one another is unlawful because it violates the federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Councilman Jesse Kurtz, who represents the city's 6th Ward where the Hansen Foundation sober living home is located, said officials have enforced basic permitting regulations but it may be time to pursue legal action. Dale Finch, director of the city's licensing and inspections department, said the situation with the home on Tallahassee may result in legal remedies.
"We're (the residents and Kurtz) of the mindset that it's time for the city to go to the courts and compel the Hansen Foundation to vacate," Kurtz said Thursday.
The group's attorney, Keith Davis, has said his client does not want to take the issue to court and would prefer to reach an amicable solution with the city.
"We are continuing to work with the city in an attempt to cooperate with them to resolve this dispute," Davis said in a voicemail Thursday.
The concerns over how sober living homes are impacting the quality of life for homeowners were echoed by several residents who felt certain neighborhoods were being devalued by the increase of short-term rentals, namely Airbnb properties.
The agenda for Wednesday's meeting included two action items related to short-term rentals, but both were pulled at the request of Kurtz. The councilman said the language in the two items — one that established a new fee structure for short-term rentals and another that amended the city code regulating nuisances to public health — needed to be reviewed and could possibly find their way to next month's agenda.
Staff writer Michelle Brunetti Post contributed to this story.