Just as he does for every meeting of the Mayor and Council Township Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey Filiatreault gave his report at the beginning of Tuesday night's session.
Filiatreault reported to nobody's surprise that had gone out on time to residents. Looking at the hundreds of residents who turned out causing the meeting to be moved from to Mayor Robert Walsh said with a laugh, "I think we all know that."
For the next few hours residents came forward to express their feelings on the tax bills many of them received this weekend. For some, especially representing the residents of Equestra that tax bill brought an increase of anywhere between 25 and 35 percent.
While the council was not able to provide any solutions on Tuesday the meeting served as an opportunity for residents to voice their complaints and that got them where they were.
Councilman Juan Malave said it was important to remember that while the township collects all the tax money from residents only a small portion of that stays in the town's coffers. "We only keep 17 cents of every one dollar that you guys pay in your property taxes," he said.
Malave also said any perception that the taxes were being raised in order to purchase the former Global Building as the new municipal complex is "not true." He added, "Not one cent in this past year's budget went in there to buy, or repair anything from that municipal building," he said.
Mayor Robert Walsh said before opening the meeting to public comment that he understood why residents were unhappy with their taxes being raised. "My taxes were raised on both my dwellings in Howell Township," he said. They happen to be in developments where the values remained pretty stable and they happen to be in another one where I won a tax appeal on an investment property I bought for my daughters hoping they'd come back and live by me when they're done with college."
Walsh said the taxes went up 13 percent on that second property. "A revaluation is a rebalancing and this was brought on by the numerous appeals, but the last revaluation that was also ordered upon this township in 2005. This town was revalued and reassessed at the height of the market. This was nothing the governing body wanted to do then."
Over the past few years the mayor said the township has made some difficult decisions including furloughs and some township employees not getting raises over the past few years in addition to a 20 percent reduction in the workforce. "These are tough times and we all know it," he said. "Five or six years ago I would always say we're going to look at these decisions like they were easy. I'm telling you now we're going to look five years from now and think the decisions that are made now were easy."
One Equestra resident who spoke on Tuesday, Madeline Dmochowski said she moved into her home for her "dream home for retirement." She said with money in the stock market which is "not going up," and Social Security which is also "not going up," her taxes, she said "were another story." With the arrival of the tax bill she said her taxes went up 25.8 percent from last year. "If I were to make a product and put it on the market and it sells then the next year I raise it to 25.8 percent it's not going to sell. Nobody's going to want it. I'm going to go out of business."
Dmochowski also got the biggest laugh of the night when talking her response to seeing how much her taxes were being raised. "If I was in fourth grade I'd say that sucks," she said. When Walsh asked what she would say in fifth grade she responded, "You don't want to know I'm from Jersey City." After the laugh she said, "How do you expect someone on a fixed income to continue this?"
Another question that was raised by residents of Equestra is the fact that some services the township provides to other residents are handled privately by that development. "What I'm saying is why in god's name would we have the same rate if we're not getting the same services," she said.
Also representing residents from Equestra was Yvonne Lorenzo who also raised several concerns for people who turned out to the meeting in red shirts in a show of solidarity. When she asked about how her neighbors were being billed for their share of the increase Walsh said looking a the tax appeals from last year the township's share is a small amount. "The shortfall of 1.4 million totally had to do with people that won tax appeals," he said. "When they won their tax appeals the governing body still has to come up with all that money. We know two-thirds of it goes to the school board. We still have to give the school board $900 thousand even though we did not collect it."
Because of that, Walsh said the money has to come from the residents. "We are not allowed to tell the school board, oh, they won tax appeals you're not getting that $900 thousand," he said. "It's ridiculous that it falls back onto the taxpayers. It's ridiculous. But as a governing body we do not have a choice."
Walsh said that is a reason why residents should also bring their concerns to their state representatives in Trenton. It was a theme that carried throughout the meeting.
Lorenzo said one of the biggest complaints residents in her development was what she saw as an "inequity" in the raises. "We're hearing people say my taxes went up $800. My taxes went up 7 percent. We're not dealing with that. We're dealing with 25 to 35 percent across board for just the Equestra residents. That's ludicrous."
During Tuesday's council meeting Township Tax Assessor Gregory T. Hutchinson explained why Equestra was affected so much in this tax cycle. "There was kind of a perfect storm for Equestra because most of Equestra came on the tax rolls post-revaluation. So as your homes were being built and put on the tax list you were being put on at true market value," he said.
Hutchinson said the tax bills that were sent out this past weekend were done with the goal of bringing the township in line with current property valuations thanks to the recent reassessment. "Whereas the rest of the entire town other than the people who had filed appeals were on as of 2006 values. This is why you guys now are seeing the increase with the reassessment because you have just been brought back into place with the rest of the town for market value."
Following the meeting Councilman Robert Nicastro said he understood the frustration of the residents who came out to Tuesday's meeting whether they lived in Equestra or anywhere in the town. "I think it was very important that we portray the message and make people understand because it's such a complicated situation the way taxes are done throughout the state of of New Jersey that unfortunately a lot of people don't understand," he said.
Nicastro said it was important for residents to understand what the township controls in the budget process and what is out of their hands. "We tried to make the people understand what we control, what we're responsible for and that I'm willing to take responsibility for," he said. "We've cut in the budget, we've done things to make things more efficient moving forward. We believe we're going to keep going in that process."
Looking outside the township's borders Nicastro said it is important for residents "to go and let those elected officials know of your dissatisfaction and let them tell you their record," he said.
Tuesday's meeting was held in the same location as tonight's Board of Education meeting and Nicastro said he believed the board will work with the township to help with future budget issues. "I think we have a very good board of education now. Some of the things they inherited in the past they can't control, but moving forward I am very confident that this board of education is moving forward in the right direction."
He added, "People have to understand, this situation did not happen overnight. It's not going to be fixed overnight."
The councilman said it is a difficult situation for everyone. "At the end of the day, no one, no one is happy with the taxes that we're paying and we're doing everything we can to fix that problem."
That, he said includes, a few steps the council can take. "It's our job to make sure that either expenses come down or we generate more revenue. That's the only thing this governing body can do on the municipal side, and that we are committed to do."
The Howell Board of Education will meet tonight at 7 p.m. at Middle School North.