The Red Bank Council last night greenlighted settlements of five tax appeal lawsuits, but only after a lengthy closed-door session that left members of the governing body clearly dispirited.
"Yes, under duress," Councilman Ed Zipprich said after a long pause when called on to vote on the first of the batch. He repeated the phrase each time he voted, as did Councilwoman Kathleen Horgan.
The votes represented a win for landlord John Bowers and other stakeholders in the five commercial properties, knocking down the net assessments on the group by $1.6 million, or 8.6 percent.
The specifics of what the council discussed in its closed-door executive session were not disclosed last night. The council re-opened its public session afterward to hold the vote.
But Councilwoman Sharon Lee told redbankgreen afterward that her reluctance to approve the settlements had less to do with the particulars of the lawsuits on the table than "the process," which she said left the council largely at the mercy of competing experts.
"We spent a lot of time on the validity of the whole process," wherein experts for property owners challenge the judgment of the borough assessor, she said.
She added that she was concerned particularly about impact of appeals "in this type of economic environment," in which property values have fallen sharply even though the last reassessment, which the appeals challenged, was concluded near the peak of a rising market.
"This is a huge process, and it takes a lot of time and energy, and it always translates into a lot of dollars," Lee said.
"There's a fair criticism of the system, but it's the system we have to work with," said borough Attorney Tom Hall, who negotiated the settlements. He said he had pressed the lawyer for Bowers to offer hard proof that the assessments were erroneous, and that the attorney had done so.
"There were good reasons to settle" rather than have the case go before a judge, he said.
The Bowers appeals concerned valuations on the properties for tax years 2007 and 2008. Borough Assessor Mitch Elias had booked the properties at an aggregate value of $18.7 million. The settlements reduce that to $17.1 million.
At the 2008 tax rate of 44.5 cents per $100 value, the change means $7,174 less in the current fiscal year for the borough coffers, according to borough CFO Frank Mason.
Zipprich, Horgan and Lee voted in favor of the settlements. Council President Art Murphy, sitting in for absent Mayor Pasquale Menna, abstained on all, as did Councilmember Juanita Lewis. Councilman Mike DuPont was absent for the vote.
Here are the resolutions, which show the before and after valuations of the subject properties.
White Street, home of Cigars Plus and other businesses.
09-97 2-150 Water Street, City Center Plaza.
West Front Street, used as a parking lot.
09-100 43 West
Front Street, offices.
09-101 70 White
Street, home of a Charles Schwab & Co. branch.