“Get out of my way or get out.”
Hopatcong resident Robin DiLorenzo’s statement echoed the sentiments of a plethora of residents who came out in droves on Wednesday to express their extreme displeasure with recent property tax increases. Some residents, mostly lakefront property owners, will see increases averaging about 30 percent, starting with the bills they will receive on Aug. 1. The meeting, held at the Fire Company #3 building, garnered such high attendance that about 60 people had to wait outside because all the available seats were taken.
According to Appraisal Systems, Inc., the company that performed the borough’s appraisals, the tax rate increased from $2.15 to $3.07 per $100 of assessed value. The issue, according to residents, is that a 2013 reevaluation assessed their homes at such values that taxes increased dramatically.
Mayor Sylvia Petillo and the borough council listened to a long stream of resident complaints, with emotions running from frustration to anger to sadness over the possible loss of their homes.
“I am a single working mom, and I don’t even have a mortgage, since my father left the home to me,” DiLorenzo said. “I work four different jobs to make ends meet. But you’re taxing me right out of my home.”
Petillo repeatedly explained to the audience that the mayor and council do not set the tax rate, which is set by the county tax board. In addition, with only about 28 percent of the total tax budget going to town items, the mayor and council control only 28 cents on every dollar. The school district takes about 53 percent of the budget, while the county takes the rest, Petillo said.
That explanation, however, did not appear to sit well with residents, as some sitting in the audience called for a class action law suit, while all called on local officials to help.
“With the 28 percent that you do control, we need to see reductions from you,” Carol Trumpore said. “There is no reason that, in today’s market, we should be paying for everyone’s health plan. I expect you to kick in for your health benefits too.
“We are a community, and as our leaders, you have to help us,” Trumpore continued. “It doesn’t matter who set the rate, we need it fixed. This rate is too high.”
Petillo further explained to residents that there is nothing borough officials can do about this issue.
“The fact that local officials are not part of the taxation process is by design,” she said. “We don’t set the rate, and we can’t change it.”
“The tax rate is a mathematical function,” township administrator Robert Elia said. “The problem is that some of the smaller homes depreciated in value while lakefront homes kept their value.”
The issue stems from a reevaluation that took place in 2007 when the real estate market was at a high point, Petillo said. As the market began to fall, the borough endured a number of costly tax appeals.
“When a homeowner wins a tax appeal the town has to refund the reduction in taxes they won,” Petillo explained. “The total tax bill for the entire town remains the same, consequently those taxes are spread over the rest of the tax base. Everyone who did not appeal has to make up for each refund.”
Petillo further assured residents that representatives of Appraisal Systems would make themselves available to meet with residents one-on-one to give residents insight on how they arrived at the new assessment. Residents were able to sign up for that meeting. Many, however, remained skeptical that such a meeting would take place.
Residents continued to express their lack of confidence in borough officials.
“What are you going to do for us to make something happen? What is your plan?” Jean Burk-Ujvary said. “You are our representatives, and this is not fair.”
Many residents suggested that the mayor and council look for places to cut the budget, and even though Petillo noted that the mayor and council do not control the board of education or its budget, several mentioned schools as an issue.
“We’ve got to do something about the school system,” resident Barbara Loring said. “The schools are terrible. We have a superintendent, a development office, all these principals, and still everyone in town who has a gifted child sends them to private school because our system is so bad. Hopatcong is being black balled by people.
“Even if we wanted to sell our homes we couldn’t, because no one will want them with the school district in the shape it’s in,” she added.
“We either have to consolidate or privatize our schools,” said Christine Pizzolato, who was waiting outside to get into the meeting. “If we don’t do something, Hopatcong will be a ghost town within a few years, because the schools are terrible and no one can afford to live here.”
Lakefront resident Madelin Crawford, who works in real estate, added that she believes the appraisals were not completed in a fair manner.
"The comps from ASI are skewed. On every street, the lowest comp was used for people off the lake." she said, shuffling through pages of comps she brought to the meeting. "This appraisal needs to get thrown out. It is wrong."
In addition to the main issue at hand, residents were unhappy with the meeting’s venue.
“Taxes are important to everyone,” said resident Leigh VanHouten. “You’d think they’d be able to find a place where everyone could listen to what they had to say.”
Petillo continually assured residents that she understood their frustrations and is working with state government on the tax issue.
“Each mayor in the state has a representative at the governor’s office,” she said. “Governor Christie is well aware of what is going on in Hopatcong. I don’t have answers yet, but I am doing all I can with state officials.
Hopatcong Mayor Sylvia Petillo gets an earful from a citizen who was told she had to wait to get into the town meeting because the venue was too small to fit all who showed up.
Hopatcong citizens wait in line to get into the meeting.
Robert Crawford takes his turn at the mic, addressing the council board.