The first of five planned presentations about the township-wide property revaluation soon to begin in Lawrence Township was held last Thursday (Jan. 24), with about 50 residents attending the hour-long session at Lawrence High School.
The first half of the meeting featured officials from the township and the company that will conduct the property assessments explaining the revaluation process, while the second half saw them answering questions posed by audience members.
The question-and-answer period was moderated by Nicole Plett, a board representative of the Lawrence Township League of Women Voters who said that the goal of the night was to improve communication and transparency regarding revaluation and to help the “process go as smoothly as possible.”
(PDF copies of two PowerPoint presentations shown during the evening can be found in the media box to the right, together with a letter and informational brochure about the revaluation process that began showing up in township mailboxes earlier this week. Also available is full audio from the evening, however we apologize for the quality of the recording. Background noise from the high school’s heating system make it difficult to distinguish some comments.)
Revaluation “is a program undertaken by a municipality to appraise all real property – and when we say all property we mean vacant land, the mall, housing, office buildings, gas stations, bowling alleys, cemeteries, schools,” township Tax Assessor Geoffrey Acolia explained soon after the meeting began.
“Everything that’s real property within the township is going to be revaluated,” he continued. “We’re going to try to get the value back up to its full and fair value. When we speak of full and fair value we speak of market value. That’s the law in New Jersey. All real estate is to be assessed according to market value – market value being what a willing buyer and a willing seller would be willing to pay for a property.”
While owners of properties that have the same market value should, for the most part, pay the same in property taxes, there are a number of factors – such as fluctuations in the economy or changing neighborhood characteristics – that can result in inequitable assessments, Acolia explained.
Lawrence Township, according to Acolia, is one of four Mercer County municipalities that have not conducted a revaluation within the last five years. In fact, Lawrence Township’s last revaluation was performed in 1993 and implemented in 1994. In February 2011, Acolia continued, the Mercer County Board of Taxation ordered Lawrence, Ewing, Hamilton and Trenton to conduct revaluations.
Last September, to Professional Property Appraisers of Delran to appraise all property in Lawrence except Quaker Bridge Mall and its “anchor” stores (J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor and Sears). Revaluation of those properties will be handled by Mark T. Kenney of Lansdale, Pa., who was awarded a separate $20,000 professional services contract because the township wanted a firm experienced in assessing such large retail establishments.
Tom Davis, Professional Property Appraisers’ president, explained that revaluations are ordered when property assessments drop substantially below market value. For 2013 the average Lawrence Township property is assessed at just 50.96 percent of market value, he said.
While property assessments will increase due to the revaluation, the municipal tax rate will simultaneously decrease. This is because the amount of money the township needs to raise through taxation to support municipal operations will not change. As a result, some property owners will see their taxes go up, others won’t see much change to their taxes, and still others will actually see their taxes drop.
“Since we’re at 50 percent of [market] value, when we go back up to 100 percent of value, our rough figuring suggests the [municipal] tax rate will drop in half. That’s just a rough kind of guideline,” Acolia said. “One of the big reasons we’re having the revaluation is, hopefully, we’ll get everybody equitable… I know a lot of people think, ‘They’re going to have this reval so they can get more money.’ That’s not the case. The town needs what the town needs to run and that stays the same before the reval and after the reval.”
To illustrate this point, Acolia showed the following chart to show the hypothetical assessments and taxes of three identical properties pre-revaluation and post-revaluation.
“Here’s another simple thing to do to do a check on yourselves to see how you may fare during this revaluation. Since we’re lucky enough to be right around that 50 percent sales ratio, we can actually take what your property is assessed at and double it,” Acolia said. “And if you think that that number is close to what the market value of the home would be, then you should hopefully fare pretty well during this revaluation. If you find that double your assessment ends up being under the market value, then you might expect that you’re going to have some type of increase in your taxes. And the same is the other way around, that you find doubling your assessment is over market value, there’s a good chance you even might see a reduction.”
Davis agreed that the goal of revaluation is to “spread the tax burden equitably throughout a municipality.”
“If you’re going to double your assessment, the town, theoretically, if they didn’t change their tax rate, they’d take in twice as much money. And legally they can’t do that,” Davis said. “So really, the revaluation just redistributes the burden. It’s like a pizza, a pie. If for some reason your piece went down $100, somebody else in town had to go up.”
The Lawrence Township public school tax rate, similarly, should decrease in much the same way as the municipal tax rate because the school district’s tax levy only affects township property owners. It is unclear at this time, however, what effect the new assessments from Lawrence’s revaluation will have on the county tax rate.
The first stage of the revaluation process will begin in early February when Professional Property Appraisers employees will go around taking photos, from the street or some other public right-of-way, of the exteriors of all buildings and properties in Lawrence Township, Davis said.
Next, starting in mid-February and continuing until September, a Professional Property Appraisers staff member will visit each property to document its lot and building dimensions, features and amenities, both inside and outside, he said.
He said each employee will carry identification and will be dressed in slacks and a polo-style shirt bearing the company logo. Each will also carry a Lenovo tablet computer to instantly record data; paper and pencil will not be used.
The homeowner will be asked to escort the appraisers through his or her home so interior features can be logged, with the interior portion of each visit taking only about 5 minutes and the entire assessment no more than 15 minutes, Davis said.
He stressed that no one should not let an appraiser into his or her homes until first checking the appraiser’s identification or calling the township police department or township tax assessor’s office to confirm that Professional Property Appraisers staff are working in that particular neighborhood on that day.
“Be satisfied with who the person coming through your house is,” Davis said.
“Some of the things we look for – we’re counting the number of bathrooms, central air conditioning and heating systems, finished basements, detached garages, in-ground pools, etc.,” he said. “A lot of people think that their décor inside…we’re really trying to keep blinders on because you might think how you decorated your house is really, really nice, and the next person might say, ‘You know what, I’m taking this down, that down…’ So we try not to look at that too much. The biggest thing is the square footage of the dwelling. That determines the value more than anything, to be honest with you…”
If a residential property owner is not home, the Professional Property Appraisers representative will leave a note advising of the day and time frame when he will visit again. If the homeowner is away during that second visit, another note will be left asking the owner to call to schedule an appointment – with evenings and Saturdays as options. If the company has not heard back from the homeowner by August, it will send one final letter asking for an appointment to be scheduled, Davis said.
If the company’s requests go unanswered or if an owner simply refuses to allow an appraiser entry to his or her home, Davis said Professional Property Appraisers will use existing information, visual evidence and neighborhood characteristics to make assumptions about the interior features. For example, he said, if an appraiser sees curtains in a basement window but is not able to go in the residence, he may assume the basement is finished, which in turn would drive up the home’s assessment.
New assessments will be calculated using data collected on-site and sales records of neighboring properties. Each owner will be notified of his or her new assessment in the fall. Those assessments, together with the adjusted tax rate, will take effect in 2014.
A property owner who is not happy with his or her new assessment will be allowed to set up a meeting with Professional Property Appraisers to discuss the assessment, Davis said. The owner can also file a formal appeal with the Mercer County Board of Taxation prior to May 1, 2014, he said.
The other revaluation presentations, hosted by the Lawrence Township League of Women Voters, will be held:
- Thursday, Feb. 7, at 7 p.m. at the Lawrenceville Volunteer Fire Co.
- Wednesday, Feb. 13, at 1:30 p.m. at the Lawrence Senior Center
- Thursday, Feb. 21, at 7 p.m. at the Slackwood Volunteer Fire Co.
- Monday, Feb. 25, at 7 p.m. at the Capt. John T. Dempster Fire Service Training Center
It was also noted that the township tax assessor’s office will offer evening hours on Thursdays in March during which property owners can visit to have their revaluation questions answered.
The Lawrence Township League of Women Voters, meanwhile, plans to host an “informal” gathering at 7 p.m. on March 6 at the Lawrence branch of the Mercer County Library to discuss revaluation.
Current tax assessment information for all Lawrence Township properties can be found by visiting the New Jersey Association of Certified Tax Boards website at www.njactb.org.