The Borough Council passed Tuesday an ordinance authorizing $300,000 for a boroughwide reassessment of homes and businesses.
The vote took place after Mayor Sylvia Petillo twice ended a public comment period of the meeting when residents were speaking out of order and debating with council members.
Borough Attorney John Ursin explained that the Sussex County tax board informed the borough last year that because of falling market values for homes, the town’s ratio of market values to assessed values had reached 114 percent, which in the past three years triggered a landslide of tax appeals filed by homeowners and businesses.
Records show that Hopatcong's total assessed property value fell from $2.037 billion in 2011 to $1.996 billion in 2012.
The owner of a home assessed at the borough average of $313,894 paid $6,524 in taxes in 2011, records show.
Ursin said last year the borough asked if it could perform a partial reassessment because certain neighborhoods were more affected than others. Ursin said the county tax board turned down the request and ordered a full reassessment.
The borough had done a full revaluation in 2007, Petillo said, but because it was done at the peak of the real estate market, and the economy faltered shortly after, property values were set too high, triggering the current reassessment.
Ursin said the $300,000 cost for the reassessment will help the borough potentially avoid $150,000 or more costs annually for the next couple of years to respond to tax appeals. That potential cost would be added to what the borough has already spent on more than 500 appeals in the past three years, he said.
Resident Bill Levick asked why “it took so long” for the council to act on the falling home values.
Ursin said the board was informed of the situation in January and it took this long to create a plan of action.
Resident Joe Bonjourno said he understood the process was a “zero-sum game,” meaning that if the assessments drop, the tax rate would rise but a homeowner’s property taxes would remain roughly the same.
Petillo said that was correct.
“We don’t raise any more money by the reassessment. Our budget is still $15 million,” she said “What could change is you share of that figure.”
Early in the discussion, residents Michelle Guttenberger and Randy Paulenich, tried to assert that the council was favoring large property owners over residential properties. Guttenberger, and then Paulenich presented the council with documents that they claimed showed that Hudson Farms was receiving favorable tax treatment.
“You are asking the taxpayers to make up for the lost ratables,” Guttenberger said.
Borough Administrator Robert Elia said Hudson Farms pays about $100,000 annually in property taxes. The majority of the property is assessed as farmland, a designation set by the state.
Paulenich again claimed the borough had $60 million in debt, but Petillo said that most of that money was borrowed by the water and sewer utility and unless a home was connected to public water and public sewer, that homeowner did not pay for that debt.
Elia said the borough has about $10 million in long-term debt, which is 14 percent of its borrowing limit of $70 million, which is set by the state.
The borough has a AA stable credit rating set by national rating services, which a top rating, Elia said.
He said the borough refinanced $14 million of old debt this year and received an interest rate of .39 percent.