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I Suppose This is Her Answer

In January of last year, the first preliminary assessments made during the property revaluation performed for the City of Trenton by Appraisal Systems Inc. (ASI) were made public. They didn’t look good for many homeowners then, and the final results bore out the trend glimpsed in the preliminary numbers. Citywide, on average residential properties stayed flat, although that total included massive valuations up and down throughout the city. Commercial property jumped on average a staggering 75%. Again, on both sides of that average, some properties went way in value, some way down. By the time these results were finalized and new tax bills were mailed, many home- and business-owners were slammed with increases of 50%, 100%, 200% and more. Several others saw bills dropped significantly.

A lot of people complained to the City, and to ASI, with varying results. After staying mostly silent on the matter, as usual, the outgoing Mayor proclaimed in August to David Foster of The Trentonian, “‘I’m really concerned about the revaluation,’ the first-term mayor said Friday in a phone interview. ‘I’m not a tax expert. I’m not a reval expert. But I’m bringing people in who are to meet directly with our community, our residents and our business owners to have a one-to-one dialogue in the next week or two.’”

Some community meetings were held, some homeowners saw their assessment appeals granted. Apart from that, nothing much happened.

As the preliminary results were revealed, I wrote a few pieces about how screwy the whole thing seemed to me. In the linked piece from late January, I looked at the results in other NJ towns of reassessments done by ASI, as context for showing how flawed the process in Trenton was.

I also sent a letter to City Council in January, appealing to them to review the valuations and throw the results out to start again with a fairer, more thorough process. The whole letter can be found here, but I just want to quote a part of it here. At one point, I appealed directly to a few individual Council members, whose own properties had significantly  increased in assessed value [Emphasis added by me]:

If these preliminary valuation increases in my neighborhood and others in the West Ward  are made permanent, and the remaining valuations do not result in a significant increase to the City’s total Net Valuation Taxable, the subsequent city property tax bills that I and my neighbors receive will be a disaster for the Ward and for the City of Trenton. Who will be able to afford tax increases of anywhere near 40%, 50% or more? Not me, nor most of my neighbors.

And, if I may speak directly to you, Councilmembers, not many of you, I would guess. Mr. Chester, your property increased in value by 55%. Mr. Harrison, yours by 43%. Mr. Bethea, yours by a relatively moderate 15%. Ms. Reynolds Jackson, you don’t live in the West Ward, but your East Ward property increased in value by nearly 67%!

Although certainly not a member of your body, I will hope that Mayor Jackson can empathize with these kinds of increases, even though his own property increased in valuation by a very minimal 2.4%, less than the rest of city as a whole, on average

Can any of you afford higher  tax bills anywhere near those kinds of rates? Remember, the City as a whole looks set to increase in value very little if at all. A rising tide of City wide property value increases will not allow you, or me, to absorb the pain of higher assessments by the benefit of a lower tax rate.

If the current results of the revaluation stand, the significant increases that seem to be concentrated in specific neighborhoods – Hiltonia on average increased by 32%, Cadwalader Heights by 39%, those neighborhoods and many of their homeowners will hurt.

It will be hard to absorb heavy tax increases. Foreclosure will likely rise, and resale values will collapse. Who will want to buy my house -  or yours, Mr. Chester, or yours, Mr. Harrison, or yours, Ms Reynolds-Jackson – and pay even more of Trenton’s notoriously high property taxes, from which we see so little value?

You won’t be surprised to hear that I only heard back from one Councilmember. And it wasn’t one of the ones I named above. It certainly wasn’t Zachary Chester, who pleaded in Council in January of this year, “[I]f you call me for potholes, call me for policy.” One can call him, or write him, often. But in my experience, he won’t respond.

I heard from only one Councilmember, once on this matter. Nothing ever since, from the other six Members.

Actually, I think I just received another answer from another Council person. She didn’t reply to me directly, but she took an action that speaks more loudly than words.

According to reporting by Trentonian reporter David Foster, on February 8 of this year, two days before she was appointed to fill a vacant State Assembly seat, former Trenton Councilwoman Verlina Reynolds Jackson quietly filed a tax appeal for her East Ward property. One year after being alerted that many, many homeowners and business owners – including her – were going to be paying brutally higher taxes; and after a full year of saying nothing and doing nothing about the situation, the newly-appointed Assembly member decided she was paying too much in taxes and filed an appeal. But not until she was safely off of Trenton’s City Council.

How do you like that, Trenton homeowners? Trenton business owners? She finally agrees that at least some of the increases – OK, perhaps just her own increase – was unfair. And so she appeals.

Adding this to the controversy over her new County job, referenced by Mr. Foster in his piece, the new Assembly member may have some questions to answer as she seeks election in her own right, first in a June primary, and later in the November general election. Many Trenton taxpayers who vote this year just might see her tax appeal as a cynical move to put Trenton behind her.  Voters in November might also recall the ease in which Mercer County conveniently hired her, and punish not only the Assemblymember, but those in the County who facilitated this.

What about the rest of us?

Well, if the first thing that the former Councilwoman did in anticipation of leaving her City office was to appeal her Trenton tax assessment as unfair, then the rest of us would just be chumps not to do the same.

Don’t be chumps.

File a tax repeal. Everyone. File a tax appeal.

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