Each year, our office files more than a hundred tax appeals with the Monmouth County Tax Board and the Ocean County Tax Board. We also file dozens of appeals for taxpayers in other counties. In the past, we were proud to report that we had obtained reductions in assessments for the majority of taxpayers we represented. However, as the attorney who personally appeared before the County Tax Boards for nearly all of the matters that proceeded to a hearing, I became concerned about the small percentage of matters that we did not win. While we have tried to pre-screen all matters to determine the likelihood of success, there were certain matters where the evidence at trial simply did not support a reduction of assessment. Yet there were other “borderline” matters, where it was likely that the properties were over-assessed, but being able to prove the over-assessments was extremely difficult due to a lack of supporting evidence. These matters were particularly distressing to me, because knowing that a property is over-assessed is sometimes easier than being able to prove it, and yet I have always believed that no one should be forced to pay more than his or her fair share of property taxes. Accordingly, I decided to modify the paradigm in which I prepare and present the data that we use in our tax appeal hearings.
Historically, we have always advised our clients that retaining an appraiser to prepare an appraisal report and testify at the tax appeal hearing always gives the taxpayer the best chance of winning a tax appeal. But we also understand that there are cases where the cost of an appraisal report cannot be justified by the anticipated tax savings of the tax appeal. This may be especially true in Monmouth County, where the majority of towns are mandated to conduct annual revaluations as the result of the Assessment Demonstration Program. So long as the annual revaluations continue, the benefit of a successful tax appeal is only guaranteed for one year, and hence, the single year reduction in taxes must be significant in order to make the cost of an appraisal worthwhile.
For matters where an appraisal is not practical, we have recommended using comparable sales. But in order to maximize the benefit of using comparable sales, we knew we had to improve the way that data was gathered and presented to the Tax Board. When preparing comparable sales data, we check a variety of sources, including data from MLS, as well as lists of closed deed transactions, which can be found by reviewing SR1a records that are filed with the County Tax Board as well as the assessor. We have tried to compare the subject property to similar properties, with houses of similar size and in similar neighborhoods. Most importantly, the properties that we are using as comparable sales must have closed within a year before or within a couple months after the October 1 assessing date. From the data obtained, we have used the most similar comparable sales to demonstrate that the assessment of the subject property must be reduced. But in 2017, in order to improve the paradigm, I started to go to the properties that I am using as comparable sales data and determine whether there are any factors that are not readily apparent in the MLS data or the assessor’s records. At times, I have even found that the information contained in either MLS or the assessor’s records was wrong, and perhaps a factor in the improper assessment of the subject property. One of the most common sources of an improper tax assessment is an error in assessor’s records. This year, we have exposed several of those errors and we have made sure that the assessments were properly adjusted to reflect the actual size and condition of the properties that we were working on.