More than 100 people filled the to confront the issue of the borough's rising property taxes on Saturday night.
Hopatcong resident Randall Paulenich said he organized the Roll Back Our Tax meeting because he was upset the property taxes on his lakefront Ithanell Road home have risen at least 5 percent each year since his family moved to the borough in 2003 and were too high, in general.
Last August, Hopatcong officials told residents in a letter that property taxes went up about 6.94 percent on average.
Paulenich told Patch he hoped to "send the mayor a message" with the meeting. "No tax increases next year," he said. "A lot of these people can't afford it."
Paulenich opened the meeting with a speech about his background and reasons for organizing the meeting.
"I believe in this town there's not enough representation of taxpayers," Paulenich said at the beginning of the meeting.
“We need to get more people involved in at least the government. I think that we're on the verge of a little bit of a tax revolution, not only here but in other boroughs, cities and states nationwide," he continued. "And I think what Gov. [Chris] Christie has started, you're going to see a lot of states doing this.
"I am not after the teachers or the policemen in this school district. To me, personally, I believe that they're probably a little bit underpaid. But this isn't about policemen or schoolteachers. It is about the administration both on the education level and who we have in city government.
"After I disclose to you to a couple of things, you're going to be a little bit [ticked] off."
- Paulenich said at the meeting Borough Tax Assessor Therese DePierro is "double-dipping," working in Hopatcong and Dover. Mayor Sylvia Petillo on Monday said it's common for tax assessors work for several towns and that the borough made a contract with DePierro, allowing her to work Mondays through Thursdays in the borough and Fridays in Dover.
- Paulenich said at the meeting he thought Hopatcong schools Superintendent Dr. Charles Maranzano makes more money than Gov. Chris Christie. Maranzano, according to the 2010-2011 budget posted on the school website, makes $170,000 a year. Christie makes $175,000. Maranzano said Tuesday that though he was eligible for a $3,400 merit-based bonus, he took a pay freeze and wouldn't recieve it.
- Paulenich said at the meeting Borough Attorney John Ursin was paid "$245 an hour to sit at council meetings." Environmental commission head Jerry Scanlan interjected, saying Ursin was paid $160 a meeting. Ursin said on Monday he's paid $160 per meeting.
- Paulenich said he'd looked through a list of people holding multiple paid positions in New Jersey. "There's people in this state holding down eight jobs. Eight jobs. The highest one getting paid $320,000 a year. You have to get down to No. 1,200 [in order of salary] to find somebody making less than $175,000 a year." When Elide Young, Councilman John Young's wife, shook her head during Paulenich's remarks Saturday, he said, "Don't be shaking your head. You don't want to be here, get out." Later in the night he apologized to Young before the audience. Paulenich on Monday said he had the second figure wrong—the 250th job on the list makes less than $175,000.
After tax attorney Robert Spiotti and licensed appraiser Raul Mendez talked and answered some questions from the crowd Saturday. Paulenich spoke again. Among his points:
- Paulenich said the Borough of Hopatcong received $2 million from the federal Recovery Act. The federal government's "Track the Money" website, Recovery.gov, showed the borough received $337,121 while the school district got $1.98 million.
- Paulenich said it cost Hopatcong about $19,000—"Somewhere in that area. That could be up or down"—to educate a student in 2008. Data released by the state Department of Education shows Hopatcong's schools spent $14,131 per pupil in 2007-2008 and $14,688 in 2008-2009. The 2009-2010 figure was $14,395. For each of those years, Hopatcong spent less than the stage average per pupil.
- Paulenich quoted Petillo's 2011 reorganization meeting speech, in which she said: "Over the past three years, we have been very successful in acquiring almost $2 million in state and federal grants." Then Paulenich said: "Does everybody know what a grant is? Borrowed money. I'm sorry. It adds to the deficit." Petillo responded Tuesday: "You don't pay grants back. It's not a loan."
- Paulenich said residents making tax appeals on their own shouldn't let tax assessors into their homes. But Spiotti said they should, or else filing a tax appeal could prove pointless, because a judge could throw it out.
- Paulenich said Hopatcong hasn't been posting agendas for its mayor and council meetings, typically held on Wednesday, 24 hours in advance. Petillo said that the borough posts agendas on the Friday afternoon before a meeting online, and residents can pick them up at borough hall on Friday afternoons or on Mondays. She said there was one recent exception, when the borough's website experienced technical difficulties leading up to the Feb. 2 meeting.
Reached Monday, Paulenich said he did not always have the most recent figures available to him.
Paulenich said he might consider creating a citizens audit committee.
"What this will allow us to do, as taxpayers, is eliminate some of our waste, mismanagement and possibly fraud that exists. Who knows?" he said.
Councilwoman Madeline McManus, who was in attendance Saturday, told Patch she was "glad a large number of people attended" the meeting.
"They're concerned about their taxes," she said. "They want answers and they should come to the council to get their answers. They should come to the council and ask their questions."
Scanlan said: "I thought it was a good meeting. … It means the town people are out to stress their concern about taxes."