Members of the Borough Council advocated for a more rigorous assessment of the University’s tax-exempt properties on Tuesday evening, questioning whether grant-funded research could be a source of revenue for the University.
The discussion of the University’s tax liability was part of the Council’s review of the Revaluation Study Commission’s report. The commission, which examined last year’s property tax revaluation, concluded that the revaluation was not legally flawed.
Along with several suggestions for alleviating the greater burden the revaluation had placed on taxpayers, the report recommended a more rigorous evaluation of the uses of tax-exempt properties in the Borough, including the University’s properties.
Last week, a group of residents also announced a lawsuit to challenge several of the University’s tax-exempt properties in court.
Borough Councilman Roger Martindell, who served as a Council liaison to the commission, recommended that the Borough pursue its more rigorous examination of the University’s tax exemptions independently of the lawsuit.
“We in the Borough can wait for these taxpayers to do the job, but we can also take initiative by collecting the very data that this report suggests we collect,” Martindell said.
The Borough is also a defendant in the lawsuit, as the challenge to the tax exemptions calls its assessment process into question.
However, Martindell described the Borough as a “placeholder” and said he did not expect the Borough to spend “any real money” on its defense.
Martindell suggested that any flaw was with the state’s tax exemption form, as it does not sufficiently examine whether the uses of the University’s properties, particularly research uses that could potentially generate revenue for the University, should qualify for exemption.
“Are staff and faculty getting multimillion dollar government grants that generate income to the University to cover the University overhead for the activities in the labs?” Martindell asked. He also said he wondered whether faculty members whose research may lead to patents had agreements to share their profits with the University.
The Borough’s tax assessor, Neal Snyder, described the state’s standard form as “very vague” and said it did not facilitate detailed inquiries into the uses of exempt properties.
Council members also voiced support for the report’s suggestion to request that the state require revaluations more frequently to reduce the shocks of revaluation during periods of great market changes.
A group of citizens called the Fair Tax-Revaluation Group, however, which disagrees with the commission’s conclusion that the study was appropriately carried out, announced months ago that it is planning to challenge Appraisal Systems, Inc., the contractor that carried out the revaluation, in court.
“We do not have any idea how they came up with the land values which are at the core of this problem,” said Dale Meade, a member of the Fair Tax-Revaluation Group. He said the group took issue with the fact that many of the most valuable properties saw decreases in their tax liability under the tax revaluation, while moderately valued homes saw startling increases.
“We have tried to replicate [the revaluation] using the same input data and the methods that they have described, and we did not get those results,” Meade said.
The commission’s report cited the fact that most of the assessed values for Borough properties corresponded very closely with the purchase prices of sales of Borough properties in recent months. Meade said that he disagreed with the commission’s conclusion that this fact supported the accuracy of the assessment.
“Unfortunately, the sale sample [used by the appraisers in the revaluation] overlaps by six months with the revaluation process,” Meade said, explaining that the overlap provided the revaluation appraisers a “sneak look to see what the answers were.” He called for a complete “redo” of the revaluation.
At the meeting, the Council also discussed the ongoing examination of a possible consolidation between Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, particularly a merger between police services.
However, current plans for the potential merger do not include an immediate reduction in the headcount of sworn officers, Martindell said.
“If we’re not going to take the opportunity to have a reduction in force to achieve efficiencies, why would we consolidate?” Martindell added. “What’s the problem with saving some money?”
Mayor Mildred Trotman, citing discussions in recent meetings of the consolidation committee, said that the police department is still developing a schedule that would reduce the consolidated department’s headcount over the next five years.
“We are convinced that, over a period of time, we will be available to save money without diminishing the level of service,” Trotman said. “We can’t presume that we’re going to be able to do that from day one.”
The Borough Police Department has considered both shared dispatch and full consolidation with other municipalities, Trotman said. Mayors from Hopewell, Ewing, Lawrence, Pennington and the Princetons held a series of meetings in February and March to consider consolidating into a regional police force but had not discussed it since then.
Martindell said he was disappointed that the police department’s plans had been so slow in formation, echoing concerns that were voiced at the meeting of the consolidation commission two weeks ago.
“We spend lots of money on personnel and we make very little effort to find efficiencies, and it is very disappointing,” Martindell said. “It’s very disappointing because I have to repeat it every single month,” he added, pounding his fist on the table.
The Borough Council also passed its final approval of the 2011 municipal budget.