The year was 1988. George H.W. Bush was president, the stock market had just crashed, “Who Killed Roger Rabbit” was a big box office hit, and Kirk Gibson homered on bum legs to become a World Series hero. It was also the year of the last tax revaluation in Jersey City, when fresh appraisals of all real estate increased the total value of all taxable property in the city from $800 million, determined by a revaluation in the early 1970s, to $5.6 billion.
However, the 1988 revaluation also had residents, particularly in downtown Jersey City, up in arms over what they charged was an error-filled revaluation that jacked up the values of their homes and led to significant increases in their taxes. City officials at the time suggested they could challenge the results of the revaluation in court by appealing the new assessments in order to lower their property taxes.
“I think I’m going to get killed again with higher taxes.” – Mia Scanga
Mia Scanga, who lives in the same four-family home she purchased in 1983 and was one of the co-founders of the Jersey City Coalition for Fair Taxation that went after the city in 1988 over the revaluation, now regrets that she has not sold her home in the past five years, because she fears the worst.
“I’m angry at myself because I didn’t get out of this town before they came back with another reval,” Scanga said. “I think I’m going to get killed again with higher taxes.”
Reviewing last reval
The 1988 revaluation started because the New Jersey Constitution requires that all real property be assessed for taxation according to the same standard of value. State law requires that property in municipalities be brought up to, or as close as possible to, 100 percent of market value.
City officials such as Mayor Anthony Cucci, who was in office at the time, and the city’s business administrator Jerome Lazarus, said property values were undervalued and the prices of homes had gone up considerably due to the influx of newcomers coming from Manhattan into downtown Jersey City who were paying higher than average prices.
The revaluation at that time was carried out by a company called Real Property Appraisers, who signed a contract in 1984 with the city during the administration of then-Mayor Gerald McCann.
Homes across the city were inspected to evaluate the condition of the properties inside and out.
But after the appraisals were done, that’s when the trouble started.
Complaints arose when residents saw their tax bills increase several-fold, and questioned the validity of the revaluation. A group of downtown Jersey City homeowners formed a group called the Jersey City Coalition for Fair Taxation and started a campaign to have the revaluation thrown out.
One charge was that numerous homes were not visited at all by an inspector, or that inspectors only came to the front door and just asked questions of the home owner.
Audrey Winkler, one of the other founders of the coalition along with Scanga and John Mercer (now an assistant business administrator for the city) said last week that coalition members also saw other problems with the revaluation.
“When we did our research, we found that the areas hit hardest by the revaluation were places where Mayor Cucci did not receive voter support when he ran for mayor,” said Winkler, who lived with her husband in a two-family home in downtown Jersey City. The couple moved to West Orange in 1996 but still own their old home, located near Van Vorst Park.
Winkler said despite the coalition’s best efforts, they could not bring a case into a state Tax Court and residents ended up having to get their taxes appealed on an individual basis. Her taxes doubled due to the revaluation to upwards of $11,000 per year.
But former City Councilman Jaime Vazquez, who represented the downtown area during the revaluation, said his part of the town as well as a section of the Jersey City Heights was not hit hardest due to political concerns.
“That sounds like a conspiracy to me,” Vazquez said. “The reality was the areas hit hardest were the ones where home prices went up considerably because of their view of Manhattan.”
Why did it take so long?
Winkler, during her interview, was surprised to hear that a revaluation has not happened in 22 years.
But for local residents like Scanga, Vazquez and longtime administration critic Yvonne Balcer, the length of time that has passed from the last revaluation to the current one is not unusual because of the political fallout. It is cited as one of the main reasons why Anthony Cucci was not reelected in 1989.
“Basically every administration passed it on to the next administration,” Vazquez said. “But I think that’s wrong to have this much time pass because the real estate values change so much.”
Actually, past administrations really didn’t have to worry about years lapsing to do a follow-up revaluation. According to a New Jersey Department of Treasury spokesperson, there is no set period of years required by state law before a revaluation has to be done again.
Political observers questioned whether the revaluation could have been put off a few more years until after current Mayor Jerramiah Healy left office in 2013, because some saw it as “political suicide” that could hurt any chances of his running for a third term if he has a notion of doing so. It is believed that Healy didn’t come up with the idea but instead various city officials caught his ear and sold the revaluation as a way of bringing in more taxes by raising the value of the city’s entire real estate.
Did the current city government learn from the 1988 revaluation to see how the current one should be carried out?
Surprisingly, city spokesperson Jennifer Morrill said that is the case.
In a statement issued by Morrill, she said, “We reviewed news articles from that time, spoke to people who either worked with the city or were involved from a community aspect, and were able to identify problems in that revaluation. One of the main lessons that were gained was that the public needed to be informed early on and kept apprised of each step of the process. That is why we created a reval brochure that we mailed out earlier this year and have posted information on our website.”
However, Balcer, who along with her husband Charles saw the taxes on their home go from $3,000 to $16,000 after the 1988 revaluation, is skeptical that the upcoming revaluation will not be any better on the homeowner regardless of how well it is carried out.
“It’s going to be the same, with downtown getting hit the hardest again, because you have homes selling in my neighborhood for almost a million and that’s going to bring up assessments,” Balcer said. “And meanwhile homes selling in other parts of town have gone down considerably in value due to foreclosure, and assessments will be down.”
She also sees the unfortunate by-product of the last revaluation rearing its head again – people are already quietly putting their homes for sale online and starting to worry about facing higher taxes.
Vazquez said the city should put together a commission with city officials and residents to make sure the revaluation is done properly with such aspects looked at as making sure at least 50 percent of the homes on a particular block are inspected before determining assessed values of properties. He recalled that the contract signed by the city in 1984 with Real Property Assessors had called for only 10 percent of homes to be inspected until the City Council stepped in to renegotiate the terms of the contract.
Winkler also hopes for more transparency, as she now wonders about her Jersey City home and what will happen if a new assessment is tallied.
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at email@example.com.