Bayonne is due for a citywide property revaluation, because the assessed value of properties has fallen too far out of sync with the true value. Right now, the city is in the process of creating new physical and digital maps, which will be used by an outsidecontractor to assess all 13,948 parcels of land in Bayonne across every zoning category – industrial, commercial, and residential.
“Until you can identify all the properties on a map, you can’t really assess them. That’s the first stage,” said Bayonne Tax Assessor Joe Nichols, who listed a plethora of map-drawing challenges. “Our map needs a lot of corrections, which includes condominiums, the new highway, and changes in the railroad.”
The latest map, which identifies every property in the city, was drawn for Bayonne’s last reval in 1991, when the last property revaluation was performed.True property values will be determined using statistical studies composedof local property sales data. Property revals are known to take a long time to complete because of the arduous map-making process and therequirement that a tax assessment firm gain access to every Bayonne propertyfor assessment using a tape measure. Inspectors are required to make three attempts for each property.
The Bayonne Tax Assessor is hoping to submit the map to the state by February or March. In April of 2016, the Hudson County Board of Taxation ordered the revalto be completed by January of 2019, but the Tax Assessor’s Office may not have the digital maps finalized in time for inspectors to assess every property by next January.
“I can’t say for sure if a reval company will be able to complete it in time, given the size of the task,” Nichols said. “We may have to ask for an extension for 2020, but the most important thing is to get it right.”
All municipalities are required by statute to perform property revaluations when the ratio of true value dips down to 80 percent of assessed value. The ratio of true value is calculated by dividing the assessed value of a home by its true value, or what that property would go for on the market.
For instance, if a property on one side of town is assessed at $70,000, and that same property’s current market value is $100,000, the ratio of true value would be 70 percent. The objective of a revaluation is to assess all properties at 100 percent true market value.
According to the NJ Division of Taxation, the aggregate assessed value of Bayonne properties is $2.1 billion, and the aggregate true value is $5.8 billion, for an average true value ratio of 36.88, far below the roughly 75 ratio that should trigger a reval.
Revals are theoretically not supposed to increase total property tax revenue for a city, but rather more fairly distribute the tax burden in accordance with market rates. In Bayonne, for instance, homes near the Bayonne Bridge construction may decrease in value, bringing down the property tax bill with it.
“Until you can identify all the properties on a map, you can’t really assess them. That’s the first stage.” — Bayonne Tax Assessor Joe Nichols
Kicking the can
Some political observers of any level of government have observed a theme of procrastination in politically unpopular procedures, especially ones that can result in higher taxes and hefty contracts for tax inspector firms. Fears of already high property tax bills rendering some residents unable to afford to live in the city resonate with local politicians, who want to preserve the city’s way of life, and cost of living.
According to United Way’s annual ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed) Report, which draws on census data, half of Bayonne homeowners are housing burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of income on housing. The data shows that residents, despite being employed, are increasingly struggling to make ends meet while the cost of housing increases.
History shows that kicking the can down the road can result in dramatic increases in property tax bills that only the most affluent can comfortably absorb. Jersey City’s 1988 reval, for instance, came 17 years after the previous one. Then-Mayor Anthony Cucci went on to lose by a wide margin in the following election after the tax base in Jersey City increased from $800 million to $5.6 billion.
Adverse political consequences can be the greatest disincentives for politicians. Now, Jersey City’s aggregate assessed value is at $6.2 billion, while its aggregate true value ballooned to $28.4 billion, for a true value ratio of 21.88, according to the NJ Division of Taxation.
Revals for the 21st Century
NJ is the only state thatdoes not yet require digital tax maps like the one Bayonne is creating. However, Nichols expects the state to implement new requirements.
Unlike prior revals, this one will submit a map in digital format, complete with layers of data that show geographies, buildings, curbs, streets, and parcels that indicate ownership. The city took new aerial photographs for this layer.
“Right now, we have an excellent digital representation of the town,” Nichols said. The digital map will one day be available for residents to view online, possibly in an interactive format where users can toggle map layers.
Liberty Board of Realtors spokesperson, Joseph Hottendorf, said that digitizing tax maps can cut the cost of a reval by a third and revalue properties incrementally, rather than all at once.
“The real story about reval is that one third of the cost is pissed away. That’s one of the reasons mayors don’t order a reval in a timely manner,” Hottendorf said. “I don’t blame the mayors. They run for office, they don’t want a reval.”
Hottendorf points the finger at the state for not mandating digital maps or regulating data collection. If Nichols is right, that could change soon, and Hudson County could see the end of reval politics.
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.