Township Council members voted unanimously recently to invite township Tax Assessor Eric Zanetti to a future council meeting.
The vote came after several residents said Zanetti needs to attend a meeting to answer the public's questions. It wasn't the first time residents had made the request since the controversial revaluation went on the books in 2010.
Holiday City resident William Gumper suggested township officials pay property tax bills at the meeting, so Zanetti would have to attend to pick up the payments and answer questions.
Township Attorney Lauren Steiger was quick to note such a plan would not be legal. But her ruling led to a discussion of other options.
Council President James J. Byrnes suggested the council hold a workshop meeting with the tax assessor, similar to the recent alternative energy workshop held last month.
Steiger said the council could invite Zanetti, but that he would be under no legal option to attend.
Joseph Semiraro of the Berkeley Township Taxpayers Coalition [BTTC] asked if a software package that would allow for yearly property assessments had arrived yet.
Township Administrator Frederick Ebenau said the software has not even been ordered yet. Steiger said township officials are looking into the cost of the software to see if it can be included in the 2012 municipal budget.
Semiraro said while he appreciates the desire to keep costs down, he feels the tax system causes “a lot of township residents [to] mispay taxes of thousands of dollars,” and urged the council to purchase the software.
“Until we know the cost, no one on council is going to commit,” Byrnes said.
Berkeley Township Taxpayer Coalition President Samuel Cammarato asked council members if they had made written requests to Zanetti, so there would be a record in case the county or state got involved.
The answer was no.
Cammarato also asked if Zanetti had ever been invited to attend a meeting, and this question too was answered in the negative.
“He’s getting beat up for not coming here and no one invited him,” said Cammarato.
Councilwoman Frances Siddons said she had spoken with Zanetti in December and believed he would be willing to come if asked.
“We had a nice conversation," Siddons said. "He said his door open. I think he would come if asked.”
The controversial revaluation lead to the creation of the Berkeley Township Taxpayers Coalition in 2010. Residents with waterfront homes on the mainland and in the South Seaside Park section of the township saw their property taxes skyrocket when the new assessments came out in 2010. The township's last revaluation was in 1990.
Byrnes asked what would be accomplished by having Zanetti attend a council meeting.
Cammarato said he could explain what is required for the compliance plan as well as give an expert opinion on the tax software Semiraro mentioned.
Councilwoman Judy Noonan then made the motion to invite Zanetti to a council meeting.
In other tax-related news, the council agree to send two of its members to a meeting arranged by the BTCC with attorney Michael Beck of Toms River for advice on whether to pursue damages against the firm Certified Valuations for the revaluation.
Semiraro noted the township has lost $400,000 in tax appeals since the assessment. He believed the township could prove breach of contract due to that loss.
While the township is currently using its conflict attorney John Bennett to negotiate a dispute with Certified Valuations, Cammarato felt the township could benefit from another opinion.
The BTTC arranged for Beck to offer a free consultation to the township as to whether there were “legitimate violations” by Certified Valuations during the assessment process. Cammarato believed the damages could be as high as $1 million.
Steiger told council members that if they met with Beck in the presence of BTTC members, they could only discuss information, not strategy.
Byrnes indicated he would be agreeable to setting up the consultation.