Tuesday, December 30, 2008

End-Year Review

My four-year old son has a new trick. He asks you to close your eyes and then sucker punches you in the tummy. The “trick” reminded me of what our elected representatives have been doing to us for years. Over the past year, we’ve witnessed both positive changes and more business-as-usual. I can’t claim the blog has done any good but I am sure of one thing – The next time an official socks us in the gut, our eyes will be wide open and the public won’t tolerate such abuse for long.

As the year’s stats show, traffic peaked in April, sharply dipped in June after I forbade anonymous comments, and then matched April’s peak in December.

Among the top ten articles, school related articles outnumber township articles by 2 to 1. Only three of the top ten were written in the later half of the year.

The issue of school directors lacking a “director’s certification” was easily the biggest story in the past six months and is not about to die anytime soon. New information will be released in January and we still have to see whether any lawsuits or regulatory actions will be forthcoming.

Once again, the least regarded story is that involving affordable housing. The town has granted zoning variances to a politically connected local developer to build unwanted and unnecessary housing despite the adverse impacts upon the community. Yet, my readership appears more interested in who’s using the handicapped parking spaces in front of town hall.

By far, Dr. O’Malley represents the single biggest improvement to our district in the past year. For the first time in recent history, the school district has recognized its mission is academic performance and community service, not patronage.

On the flip side, the township has been a series of disappointments. First Town Manager Brown’s resignation and then Councilwoman Gallo’s resignation. Meanwhile, pay-to-play is rampant and the back-door dealings continue.

The biggest lesson of the year was the school board election. Jan Rubino, with the implicit endorsement and support of the teachers union, solicited campaign contributions from school staff. The scandal was largely ignored and she won in a landslide.

The biggest question mark is BOE President Pat Demarest. She has a commendable record supporting Dr. O’Malley. In everything else, she’s been a terrible disappointment. From ethics, to academic achievement, to staff qualifications, to teacher qualifications, she has steadfastly maintained her position that the minimum legal standards, in all cases, are sufficient for our students and community. Yet, despite her low standards, she publicly opposed Dr. O’Malley’s appointment. Go figure.

As for the blog itself, I am still well below my goal of reaching 5% of all households in Aberdeen. Excluding certain stories, Aberdeener.com often doesn’t pass the 3% threshold. I had assumed a natural organic growth through word of mouth. That hasn’t happened. In January, I plan to promote the site through a bulk mailing and provide a “Best of Aberdeener” page listing the choicest articles.

One thing’s for sure – it’s no longer business as usual. More and more, officials are considering their actions’ consequences. Whereas before they could act fearlessly in the shadows, now they must tread carefully in the light.

I believe the blog continues to do well and I thank my readers for their indulgence and support. I continue to hope the blog will become unnecessary.

May everyone have a blessed year.
>>> Read more!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Affordable Housing for the Rich

On November 11, 2007, I wrote the following:

This November 28th, Aberdeen’s Zoning Board will be hearing two variance requests from Centex Homes, LLC. The Zoning Board Engineer called both requests “intense” devlopments. The agency hired to review the submissions, characterized them as rezoning proposals under the guise of variance requests that would “substantially impair the intent and purpose of the zone plan and zoning ordinance.” The public opposes the plans because of traffic congestion and adversely affecting our school system and property taxes. Yet, despite the universal opposition to these developments, everyone is afraid they might garner town approval. Why? Because Aberdeen has a history of choosing private money over the public interest.
Once again, the public was right. After several postponements, the planning board granted unanimous approval to both projects on December 9th, which were then approved by the town council on Dec. 16th. Did the “powers-that-be” forget what they said a year ago or do they assume we’re too stupid to remember?

Let’s compare what Aberdeen’s Town Planner, Richard Coppola, said in his September 24, 2007, review and the December 9th Planning Board meeting.

Now: “This is an opportunity.”
Then: “It is our opinion that the proposed condominium residential use is not in conformance with the current Zone Plan of Aberdeen Township and will ‘substantially impair the intent and purpose of the zone plan and zoning ordinance.’” (Page 15)

Now: “A residential use is more compatible with what is already there in the neighborhood than commercial uses."
Then: The area “is zoned within the ‘HC’ Highway Commercial zoning district; clearly, it is illogical to conclude that the development of this land area for retail commercial uses as zoned will create ‘scattered commercial uses’”. (Page 12)

Now: When asked if the number of units has increased, Coppola answered “The number has actually decreased.”
Then: “The applicant proposes to construct 62 non age-restricted townhouse units . . .” (Page 4) Same as now.

Now: "I recommend that the town adopt this resolution”
Then: “The applicant is required to show an enhanced quality of proof so that the Zoning Board has clear and specific findings that the granting of the requested variance will not cause a ‘substantial detrimental to the public good’ and will not ‘substantially impair the intent and the purpose of the zone plan or zoning ordinance’. (Page 6) . . . “It is our opinion that the proposed condominium residential use is not in conformance with the current Zone Plan of Aberdeen Township and will ‘substantially impair the intent and purpose of the zone plan and zoning ordinance.’” (Page 15)

Planning Board Attorney Michael Leckstein, the attorney who will spare no taxpayer expense to pursue a groundless suit against a cell tower, supported the plan as well.

According to Mayor Sobel, this is all to fulfill our COAH obligations.

Well, there’s a far easier way to satisfy our COAH obligation – stop using inflated projections that are nearly 70% above the state’s estimates.

According to Aberdeen's 3rd Round COAH Premediation Report, "Aberdeen was required to provide the most recent municipal population, household, and employment growth projections published by the municipality's MPO. The MPO for Aberdeen is the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA)."

Those numbers are 410 households and 310 jobs.

"Aberdeen has projected its residential growth to be 1,089 units and its non-residential growth to be 457 jobs. In accordance with N.J.A.C. 5:94-2.3, Aberdeen's household and employment projections are above the NJTPA projections and therefore have a presumption of validity in the petition for substantive certification." (Pages 10-11)

So, why the sudden change of heart? “The applicant has since changed to RCM Group LLC.”

RCM stands for Rick Cifelli Management.

Though I’ve not researched it, I’ve heard from multiple reliable sources that the property housing the old DMV office on Rt. 34 is owned by the Cifelli family. The DMV (now MVC) then moved to Airport Plaza, the property owned by Vic Scudiery (Monmouth’s Democratic Party Chairman).

The rumor is that the projects are a “backdoor restitution” for the Cifelli family. Personally, I think it’s a bunch of backroom scoundrels wetting their beaks in the punchbowl before the party’s over.
>>> Read more!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

What's a School Director?

My apologies for the lateness of this posting. I had hoped to post soon after Monday night’s Matawan-Aberdeen School Board meeting, especially given the explosive nature of the prior article. Highlights from the meeting include the proposed academies, the 7% health insurance increase, and the ethics presentation reviewing the School Ethics Act.

But, to cut to the chase, Demarest pretended she was unaware of any of the issues surrounding the three directors (as if she doesn’t read this blog). When I asked why the board appointed a high school graduate to Director of Technology, Demarest suggested I have a chat with Cathy Zavorskas, as if the two of us were BFFs (best friends forever).

Dr. O’Malley gave assurance that if anyone was unhappy with his child study team, Dr. O’Malley would try to provide an acceptable alternative.

However, the key issues regarding the directors were discussed with Board Attorney Michael Gross. Following the meeting, Mr. Gross was very gracious with his time and provided three administrative cases supporting his contentions that supervisors are qualified to oversee child study teams and that a director’s certification is only necessary when the job description, not job title, demands it.

Out of professional courtesy, and with gratitude towards Mr. Gross, I am withholding final judgment until I have researched the cases. However, please note that I have already communicated, directly or indirectly, with a county certification officer and two special education attorneys. Having done so, I find no basis to retract anything from my prior posting. However, if I find Mr. Gross’s case history convincing, I will certainly retract any and all incorrect statements.

To save people the time of going through the entire video (or having to look at Zavorskas’s frozen scowl), I have transcribed my comments and the responses. Though not perfect, the below is near exact.

Warren: It was recently brought to light that there were three directors who were either appointed or maintained in their positions despite what it seems to be the board’s knowledge they were unqualified for those positions. And I was hoping you could comment on that.
Demarest: I think I would need more information on the directors and their positions.
Warren: In December 2003, Ms. Rappaport and Ms. Pond were both demoted to supervisory status from director and yet, during the last five years, I shouldn’t say that, after they were demoted to supervisor, they were both maintained in a director’s position.
Demarest: Both are the same case. December, 2003.
Warren: December 15, 2003, the board approved that their positions, their titles, their positions, would be changed from director status to supervisor status.
Demarest: Okay, and your question is?
Warren: The question is, can you explain why, after they were changed from a director to a supervisor, were they maintained as directors for the district?
Demarest: And do you know they were maintained as directors of the school district?
Warren: I have documents, sworn affidavits, from Ms. Rappaport that she was a director of special services. She was submitting these sworn affidavits to court hearing involving special ed cases. In the case of Ms. Pond, I have copies of the old website listing her as director. I have an old newspaper article that says when she retired she was a director. I mean, It’s very clear they were maintained as directors.
Demarest: That’s post the ’03 meeting.
Warren: Post the ’03 meeting.
Demarest: I’ll ask the attorney if he has the history of any of those positions.
Gross: The only thing I can respond to in regards to that, there are a couple of things that are not correct in what you said. I want to make sure that we’re correct in what we’re saying. First of all, you’re presuming that the change of title, the official title from director to supervisor was some kind of a demotion. And I’m not sure that there is a demotion necessarily from . . .
Warren: Change
Gross: But you used demotion three times.
Warren: One has a lower pay scale than the other.
Gross: Sorry?
Warren: Because one has a lower pay scale than the other.
Gross: No, it does not. That’s why I’m trying . . .
Warren: A supervisor under the MRAA contract has a different pay raise than a director.
Gross: Currently, but not in 2003, it did not.
Warren: The contract, I believe it was the 2003-2005 contract, I believe there was a difference. I could be wrong.
Gross: I think if you double check, to conclude . . .
Warren: The responsibilities are also different. The director’s considered a higher level of responsibility than a supervisor.
Gross: Not necessarily.
Warren: A supervisor cannot oversee child study teams.
Gross: That’s another misnomer and I know that was misspoken at the last board meeting. And that continues to be misspoken when you say it again and that’s why I want to set the record straight with regard to that. There is the regulations that due permit the supervisor of special education to supervise child study team members. There is clear case law in the state of New Jersey that provides for that. As a matter of fact, there are over one hundred and fifty supervisors of special education and special services in the State of New Jersey, and a number of them are even in districts very close to this locale including Marlboro, Colts Neck, Freehold Regional, Howell. All of those districts utilize the position, the title, supervisor of special services or special education and they do supervise the child study teams. So, again, there’s a lot of misinformation that has been spoken about this subject in the last meeting and now again tonight. So, I want to make sure that we’re correct in what we’re saying.
Warren: Alright, are you certain that those same supervisors only have a supervisor’s certificate? That they’re not also certified as a director?
Gross: Yes.
Warren: Why was Ms. Rappaport being, I would say, in all the documents that I could find, being represented as a director?
Gross: I can’t answer that. I don’t know why that is the case. Mr. Warren, I do not know.
Warren: Another case would be Ms. Cholewa. Ms. Cholewa is a high school graduate of Matawan. She clearly lacks all the legal qualifications to be a director of technology. Why was she appointed to that position?
Gross: There is no certification requirement for a position of director of technology. The term director is a working title, not necessarily an administrative title. And, therefore no different that what we call the director of the school play a director. They don’t need a director’s certification or endorsement to be a director of the school play. There’s a difference between a working title and a legal or an actual title.
Warren: I can’t argue with you on the legal points. I don’t know it but . . .
Gross: I’m sure you’ll look into it, though, Mr. Warren.
Warren: Oh, I certainly will, thank you for that. Alright, so let’s discuss the appropriateness of selecting a high school graduate to be a director of technology. Can you explain why, in your opinion a high school graduate was best qualified for a director of technology position?
Demarest: What was the date on that?
Warren: That was at the reorganization meeting of 2003. April 28th, 2003, she was appointed to become the director of technology.
Demarest: And I assume you know the vote. How many board members voted for that?
Warren: All of them. It was 9-0. Two-thirds, two-thirds . . .
Demarest: I really don’t remember that day but I’m going to say if 9 out of 9 board members vote for it in the affirmative for the superintendent’s recommendation.
Warren: Correct.
Demarest: So, that rationale would have come from the superintendent at the time, whoever that may have been. I believe at that time we were in a committee system, so that the rationale would not have been discussed in public but within a personnel committee meeting. I was not on personnel at that time but I’m sure you can get the records of who was on the personnel committee and they would have been privy to the rationale behind that appointment.
Warren: I, I know that, actually, I did see a portion of the personnel committee. I know that at the time, Ms. Zavorskas was both president of the board and president, not president, and on the personnel committee.
Demarest: Okay, but this wouldn’t be the forum for you to ask her one-on-one for what happened at that committee. You’re certainly welcome when this meeting is over to ask her what the rationale was behind that appointment.
Warren: It’s also my understanding that Ms. Rappaport’s salary would be frozen because she was not certified to be a director. Is that correct?
Demarest: Her salary was frozen. That is a correct fact. You want the rationale behind that, that was not a board vote. That was a superintendent’s decision. So you can ask . . .
Warren: I’m asking.
O’Malley: It was my decision that she did not hold the qualifications to be a director and she should be a supervisor.
Warren. Okay. According to Mr. Gross, he said there’s no difference between the two. Is that your understanding as well?
O’Malley: I don’t think that was his answer.
Warren: That wasn’t? Okay, can you please explain the difference between a supervisor and a director in terms of the qualifications.
Gross: Under the New Jersey Administrative Code, there is an administrative certificate. For example, Ms. Rappaport has an administrative certificate. There are three different kinds of endorsements that you can get under an administrative certificate. Actually, there are four. But, for the purposes of this discussion, there are an administrative certificate, that is what the chief administrator has, there is a principal’s endorsement, that is not even a term director, by the way, the term director is not even a recognized administrative title in the State of New Jersey. There is a principal’s endorsement under the administrative certificate. And the third, for the purposes of our discussion, is the supervisory endorsement. Under the administrative code, under the administrative certificate.
Warren: So, I guess my question stands, in terms of her responsibilities and functions, what’s the difference between a director and a supervisor?
Gross: It would depend on what the job description calls for. Certainly, some districts require as part of the job description for you to have a principal’s endorsement to qualify for the position. Other districts, as I mentioned before, who have supervisors, only require a supervisory endorsement as part of that certificate.
Warren: But we just eliminated the supervisory position.
Gross: That is correct. Dr. O’Malley had, I don’t mean to speak for him, but I’m sure that I can in this particular incidence, Dr. O’Malley has made the determination that he would want the person in charge of the child study team to have a principal’s endorsement. And, as a result of that, he eliminated the position of supervisor, the official position, a supervisor of special services, and replaced it with the director of special services, which will require a minimum, a principal or administrative endorsement on the administrator’s certificate.
Warren: So, your understanding is that, not in terms of the qualifications, but in terms of what Ms. Rappaport could have done as a supervisor is no different from what she could have done as a director.
Gross: That is correct. And, as a matter of fact, nothing that Ms. Rappaport did or, there’s nothing that a principal’s endorsement could have done to change Ms. Rappaport’s expertise in the area of special education. It would just be a different kind of administrative endorsement, not a special education endorsement. For example, I know that there was an accusation, I think already this evening, about her ability to sign these documents and testify in court on those documents as a director even though she may have only had a supervisory endorsement. There is nothing she would have testified to in court that a principal’s endorsement would have given her any more expertise in testifying on those issues. That’s an administrative issue, not a special services or special education issue.
Warren: Speaking of Ms. Rappaport, it’s my understanding that she’s now, that she will be assuming the position of school psychologist in the Matawan Avenue Middle School.
Gross: Pursuant to her rights as a tenured employee in the district following the reduction in force that took place at the last board meeting. She invoked her tenure right as a school psychologist.
Warren: I’m concerned for the parents who are afraid of retaliation. I want to know if this school board has considered any policy that would allow any family that does not want their child being reviewed by Ms. Rappaport an alternative.
O’Malley: You’re asking for a specific policy or are you asking . . .
Warren: No, I’m just saying if someone says “Hey, I don’t want my kid being reviewed by Ms. Rappaport” would you honor that?
O’Malley: I absolutely would do that for anyone and not just particularly in that case.
Warren: Great, thank you. Also, just for the record, when was the last time Ms. Rappaport had any one-on-one experience with a student?
O’Malley: Who would know that answer?
>>> Read more!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

School Crimes and Misdemeanors


The year is 2003. Bruce Quinn is a few months into his new job as Matawan-Aberdeen’s Superintendent. Cathy Zavorskas has been elected President of the Board of Education. The voters have defeated a proposed 10% school tax increase. And the dreaded redistricting plan is underway.

That same year, the school board approves three staff changes. The changes appear minor and pass unremarked. Yet, those three changes, five years later, may launch the school district into its greatest legal jeopardy in living memory.

On December 15th, 2003, Helen Rappaport was demoted from Director of Special Services to Supervisor of Special Services (page 11). Present at that board meeting were Bruce Quinn (Superintendent), Catherine Zavorskas (then BOE President), Patricia Demarest (current BOE President), Jan Rubino (current BOE Vice President), Joel Glastein (Deputy Superintendent, Director of Personnel), Michael Gross (School Board Attorney) and current BOE members, Lawrence O’Connell, Gerald Donaghue, and John Barbato.

Ms. Rappaport was demoted because, despite her credentials, she lacked a New Jersey Board of Examiners certificate to be a director. As a supervisor, she lacked the authority to oversee child study teams (CSTs).

Yet, despite a board vote to change her position, Superintendent Quinn maintained Ms. Rappaport as a Director of Special Services and the board looked the other way. The vote was a charade to bypass the numerous state safeguards against a school district employing a person in a position for which that person is unqualified.

The New Jersey Administrative Code (N.J.A.C.) § 6A:9-17.4 states “The chief school administrator of a district shall notify the Board of Examiners when . . . a certificate holder fails to maintain any license, certificate or authorization pursuant to N.J.A.C. 6A:9-4.1(b) that is mandated in order for the holder to serve in a position.”

New Jersey also mandates that all districts submit a matrix report, listing each staff member’s position. The state matches that information against its database to flag any person who is not properly qualified for his position.

The board vote allowed the district to inform the state and county that Ms. Rappaport was no longer a director of special services. The district’s matrix report lists Ms. Rappaport as a supervisor.

In addition to submitting fraudulent documentation to the state and county, our district also perjured itself in court. In numerous court hearings involving cases of special needs students, the district submitted sworn affidavits from Ms. Rappaport.

The affidavits attest to the facts that Ms. Rappaport was a Director of Special Services and oversaw the Child Study Teams. Her signature lies under the statement “I hereby certify that the foregoing statements made by me are true. I am aware that if any of the foregoing statements are willfully false, I am subject to punishment.”

Our board attorney will need to explain how, as an officer of the court, he allowed false statements to be submitted to the court. As a matter of conscience, our Board of Education will need to explain how they allowed an unqualified person to oversee our neediest students.

Imagine the following: Ms. Rappaport knows she is unqualified for her position. She knows the administration knows. She knows the board knows. She knows the state has multiple safeguards against her maintaining that position. Why did she feel so secure in her position that she never pursued certification for the director’s position?

We can only wonder but here are some possibilities –

  • As Director of Special Services, she supervised Susan Quinn, the superintendent’s wife, and there may have been a mutually beneficial relationship
  • Cathy Zavorskas, the 2003 BOE President, is widely rumored to have received special consideration for her learning disabled child and there may have been some tit-for-tat
  • The culture of corruption was so widespread in the school district that nobody thought anybody would get caught for anything save the most egregious offenses
One thing we know for sure, Ms. Rappaport’s case was not an isolated incident.

At the same December 15th, 2003, BOE meeting, Ms. Caroline Pond was also demoted from Director of Testing and Special Programs to Supervisor Planning/Research and Evaluation (Testing). Considering that performance is never used as a basis for demotion, we can surmise that she, too, lacked the qualifications to be a director. Sure enough, the district continued to use her as a director and, two years later, she retired as such.

But the prize for sheer outrageousness has to go to the case of Barbara Cholewa.

Ms. Cholewa never received any college degrees. Rather, she is a graduate of Matawan Regional High School, was active in the teachers union, and was once Bruce Quinn’s secretary (and reputedly the godmother of one of his children).

On April 28, 2003, the same day as the school board reorganization, Quinn cleverly concealed Ms. Cholewa’s appointment by including it in a staff array with hundreds of names. On that day, the board elevated Ms. Cholewa, a high school graduate, from secretary to Director of Technology.

By law (N.J.A.C. § 6A:9-5.1) “The district board of education that is considering employing the individual shall assure that the candidate holds all necessary licenses, certificates or authorizations.” Zavorskas wasn’t only the BOE President, she was also on the board’s personnel committee. Plus, like Cholewa, Zavorskas was a lifelong resident of the community, spent lots of time in the administrator’s office, and had a cozy relationship with the teachers union. It’s inconceivable that she was unaware that Cholewa was a secretary who never graduated from college.

Even if Zavorskas (like the other board members) hadn’t properly reviewed the staffing list, how long did it take her to realize the board promoted a secretary without a college degree to Director of Technology?

In this instance, Quinn never needed to fake the matrix report. Director of Technology wasn’t included on the certificated staff list. Rather, her name continued to appear on the non-certificated staff list along with the other secretaries.

This past June, following Dr. O’Malley’s recommendation, Cholewa was reduced to Manager of Information Systems (i.e. secretary), earning $87,000 plus benefits.

According to the grapevine, Cholewa has retained Frank Campbell to sue the district. Campbell is the former law partner of school board attorney, Michael Gross, who called Dr. O’Malley a misogynist at a recent board meeting and was urged by Susan Quinn to continue speaking.

What’s next?

There is ample evidence the district knowingly assigned people to positions for which they were unqualified. There is ample evidence of violations of the New Jersey Administrative Code. There are the fraudulent documents submitted to the state. False affidavits submitted to the courts. But worse of all is the civil rights violations against scores of families with special needs children.

In time, we will learn the legal consequences of our school district’s conduct but no amount of time will wash away our sins. The best we can do right now is to launch an independent investigation to find the truth so we can stop this from recurring in the future.

Note: Special thanks to Board Attorney Michael Gross for showing me NJSA 47:1A-10 that states "data contained in information which disclose conformity with specific experiential, educational or medical qualifications required for government employment or for receipt of a public pension, but not including any detailed medical or psychological information, shall be a government record." >>> Read more!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Neighbor in Need

This message will be updated as we receive additional information. Please spread the word.

Update: Some local contractors have generously contacted me to help and the family is overwhelmed with appreciation. We can be proud to live in such a warm and caring community. If you can help with rebuilding the home or would like to assist in any other way, please contact me at PTOParent@aol.com. As for those who have already given, on behalf of the family, words cannot express our thanks.
Kathy Gentile, Co-President

A group of neighbors has been making phone calls on behalf a local family that was left devastated by a fire to their home today. This wonderful family of five lives in the "F" section of Aberdeen and three children attend schools in our community (Strathmore and MAMS). Assistance and outreach have already begun, with the Red Cross providing shelter in a local hotel and Mr. Lalor, a neighbor and volunteer leader with St Vincent De Paul society offering his experience and contacts for immediate assistance.

This family has both short term and long term needs and this e-mail is being sent so that members of the community, that want to provide some type of assistance, can do so.

As one of the Co-president's of the MAMS PTSO, I will help coordinate donations, channeled through our school. The family has two twin boys in kindergarten in Strathmore and a daughter in sixth grade in MAMS. Warm clothing (jackets, jeans, shirts, pajamas, etc.) is needed; the boys wear a toddler 5/6 and the daughter wears a junior size small or medium.

Other thoughtful donations could be gift cards to local stores, including Kohls, Costco, grocery stores, drug stores, etc. I checked with Costco today, and the family will be able to use Costco gift cards (without the need for membership). I have asked Costco for a donation and need to follow up on Wednesday.

Via this email, I will ask Mrs. Olsen if we can send donations up to MAMS and I would like to collect all donations no later than Friday afternoon (12/12) and bring them to Mr. Lalor for his handling and distribution.

Although the fire to the home was devastating, the bright spot is that no one was hurt or injured in the fire. This is a blessing as we can replace possessions...the people we love, and care about, are not. At this holiday time of year, please remember to include this family in your thoughts and prayers and any assistance you can offer would be greatly appreciated. Please forward this message to other friends and neighbors (that may want to offer assistance) and thank you for your generous spirit.

Kathy Gentile, Co-President
>>> Read more!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Property Revaluations – What You Need to Know

This Tuesday, December 9th, at 7:30 PM, the Aberdeen Township will hold a Revaluation Information Session. It will explain why the township had a revaluation, why it was the right thing to do, how the process works, and what you can do if you believe your assessment was incorrect. Allow me to save you the trouble and give you the information you need to know.

The New Jersey State Constitution dictates “All real property assessed and taxed locally or by the State for allotment and payment to taxing districts shall be assessed according to the same standard of value . . .” (Article VIII, Section I) The state has set a target that all municipalities assess their properties at 100% of value. The last time Aberdeen had a revaluation was sixteen years ago in 1992. The county therefore informed Aberdeen we were long overdue and insisted we reassess all properties.

Rather than save some money and request a shared bid with Matawan – both municipalities used Realty Appraisal Company – Aberdeen chose to postpone the revaluations for a year so as not to coincide with township elections. Unfortunately for our solons, that meant the property tax changes would take effect during an election year and next year’s a big one – the mayoralty and control of the town council are up for grabs. So, Mayor Sobel has asked the county to delay imposing the new assessments for another year, a non-election year. Our dear Mayor Sobel also has the fine distinction of being the only mayor in all of Monmouth County to make such a request.

Well, good luck with that. For the taxpayers who need to deal in reality, here’s what you need to know.

The preliminary assessment roll is $2,090,000,000. That’s 2.47 times the old assessment roll of $847,374,000. In other words, the average property owner’s assessment is 2.47 times his previous assessment. That means, if your new assessment is 2.47 times your old assessment then your “fair share” remains the same.

As an example, a home’s prior assessment was $100,000. If the new assessment is over $247,000, taxes are rising. If less, taxes are dropping.

To properly calculate the tax rate, you divide total appropriations (local, county, school, trash, etc.) by the total assessment roll. Rather than calculate total appropriations, I’ll take the lazy man’s route and just divide last year’s tax rate of 5.617 (dollars per hundred dollars of assessed value) by 2.47 and add 4% (my guesstimate for next year’s tax increase). Rounding gives a 2009 tax rate of 2.365.

In order to approximate your 2009 tax bill, multiply your new assessment by 2.365%.

The new tax rate doesn’t take affect until the 3rd quarter of next year, meaning your first payment under the new rate will be due in August.

The revaluations are revenue neutral so, applying the rule of thirds, one-third will see property taxes increase, one-third will see a decrease, and one-third will remain about the same.

Based upon what happened in Matawan and anecdotal information, homes on the lower end of the spectrum (apartments, condos, older homes, etc.) will get the biggest hit while homes on the higher end (houses built in the last twenty years) will see the biggest windfall.

(Full disclosure: I challenged my assessment early this year and received a 22% reduction prior to the revaluations.)

The question, now, is how to reduce your taxes.

The assessed value should be a close approximation of the sale price of your property. When the appraisal company visited your home, they matched what they saw against a data sheet provided by the municipality and made notations of any discrepancies.

The appraisal company then matched your home against recent sales as best they could. Given today’s housing market, their assumptions may have inadvertently inflated the assessment on your home but, because they used the same criteria across the board, everybody’s home was calculated the same way, your fair share remains the same, and your tax rate is unaffected.

In other words, the only way you can challenge your assessment is by demonstrating they made a mistake specific to your house.

Here are examples of common mistakes –

  • Unheated areas of the house - If you have an unheated storage room, laundry room, basement, etc. unless you told the appraiser, he may have listed the area as heated. Unheated areas are assessed a lower value
  • Structural, flooding damage – If your house has any structural defect or is subject to flooding, make sure the appraiser knows
  • Outdoor structures – If it’s not “connected” to the land, it’s not real estate. Sheds, hot tubs, above-ground pools, etc. are not taxable if they lack a true foundation connecting them to the land (Note: All sheds over 100 square feet and all decks, whether or not connected to the house, are taxable. Thanks to Holly Reycraft, Aberdeen Township's Tax Assessor, for the correction.)
  • Location – If your house is in a particularly bad location, that matters
If you think your assessment is too high, challenge it NOW! Once the assessments get submitted to the county they will be virtually impossible to challenge. The county allows a 15% error margin before they’ll consider revisions.

However, don’t expect any major reductions. The vast majority of reductions will be less than 2%. Still, for most residents, even getting a $50 reduction in annual property taxes is worth the time.

To recap, the average assessment is rising by a factor of 2.47. If your new assessment is more than 2.47 times your old assessment, your taxes are increasing.

The guesstimated tax rate for next year is 2.365% of your new assessed value.

To challenge the assessment, follow the directions on your letter and do so now. When challenging, you must demonstrate a material difference between their records and your property – either their records are lacking information or have something wrong.

As for relying upon the town council for assistance, like the Genie said to Aladdin, it’s time to “wake up and smell the humus.” >>> Read more!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Councilwoman Gallo’s Replacement

As required by law, the Aberdeen Democratic Executive Committee has submitted three candidates for Councilwoman Gallo’s seat on the town council – two old-timers who won’t feel slighted by not being selected and one ace. No surprise whom will be picked. Congratulations to Fred Tagliarini on his upcoming appointment to the Aberdeen Town Council.

The other two names, Henry Arnold and Irwin Katz, are respected members of the community but they lack the fresh face and name recognition that Fred Tagliarini has.

Fred and his wife, Donna, make an attractive couple – friendly, athletic, and long-time community volunteers. Fred was recently re-elected Vice President of the Matawan-Aberdeen Babe Ruth League, where he’s been involved for nearly 20 years, and he sits on Aberdeen’s Planning Board. Donna participates in Monmouth County’s annual Outdoor Adventure Expo and some charity runs.

The question is what kind of councilman will Fred Tagliarini become. I have high hopes. First, Tagliarini is well-respected in the community and nobody enjoys being bashed on these pages or in the town grapevine. Second, he never campaigned for the position; the party came to him, not the other way around. Third, the local Democratic Party is on a losing streak considering the resignations of Councilwoman Gallo and former Town Manager Stuart Brown. Fourth, anybody connected with town events has, at the least, a passing familiarity with the allegations on this blog and will be assuming the position with eyes wide open. Lastly, all good people want what’s best for our community and Tagliarini is a good man.

Still, as my newest representative, I respectfully submit to him the following requests:

  1. In the upcoming mailings regarding the property revaluations, please provide guidelines on how a property owner can determine how the new assessment will affect his property taxes
  2. In the upcoming budget, ask to review last year’s payments for professional services and see if they’re in line with neighboring municipalities
  3. Pursue alternative quotes for professional services and end the practice of pay-to-play
Best of luck, Fred Tagliarini. Make us proud. >>> Read more!