Vincent Solomeno, the Democratic nominee for the Monmouth County-based 13th State Senate district, is posing an interesting question this fall: can a state legislative race hinge on the complex issue of property tax reassessment?
Solomeno, who’s running in an uphill campaign against State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver), is convinced it can. He’s spent much of the campaign season launching attacks against Monmouth County’s unique system of property valuations, in which properties are reassessed every year – attacks which both O’Scanlon and members of the county’s tax board say are misleading at best.
“I think [the system is] unfair, it’s unequal, and I do believe it’s been implemented in an unethical manner that results in higher property taxes for Monmouth County homeowners and small businesses,” Solomeno said.
He’s put his money where his mouth is, sending out mailers plastered with broadsides against O’Scanlon’s involvement in the creation of the system and dispatching canvassers whose only message is explaining the system’s faults to voters.
But O’Scanlon and Cliff Moore, the president of the Monmouth County Board of Taxation and a Democrat, both say that Solomeno’s claims are untruthful.
“I mean, the lies – there’s almost no truth to anything the guy says,” O’Scanlon said. “And it’s damaging to a program that either Vince Solomeno doesn’t understand, or he understands and he’s trying to fuck it anyway for his political benefit. Either way, it’s an example of the worst aspect of politics.”
What does Monmouth County do differently?
The debate over Monmouth County’s form of property tax reassessment is a long and complicated one that dates back to 2013, when the county first switched to the system that remains in place today.
In most New Jersey counties, home values are reassessed in-person by an assessor once every ten years. According to Moore, such a system has several inherent problems, among them that such a long gap between assessments can’t capture differences in appreciation in different parts of a municipality, and that some homeowners’ taxes might be stagnant for a decade and then experience a radical jump.
“Under the old system, someone’s home could be over- or under-assessed by 15%,” Moore said. “Under the old system, during a [revaluation], that number could be wrong for 10 years. You could overpay your taxes for 10 years without any relief.”
In response to these problems, Monmouth County switched to an annual property tax reassessment system, knocking the county out of step with the rest of the state but bringing it in line with many other states in the union.
Now, assessors visit every home in a municipality every five years on a staggered basis, and each home’s value is revised every year even without an in-person inspection. The new system means that property taxes are updated yearly, mitigating any large and unexpected changes, but it also means homes can change in value without being directly inspected.
A history of scandal and praise
To hear Solomeno tell it, the system is one engulfed in scandal and criticized by both political parties from the beginning. To hear O’Scanlon and Moore tell it, it’s one that received numerous awards and is a paragon for bipartisan cooperation.
And weirdly, they’re both right.
In 2015, shortly after the new system was launched, it came under withering investigation by the Asbury Park Press, which charged that Monmouth County Tax Board Administrator Matt Clark had steered the program’s contracts towards two companies with whom he had personal relationships. The paper’s investigation also found that the system initially led to higher property taxes, calculating that homeowners paid an average of $124 more than they had the year before.
The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, after an 18-month investigation, did not find sufficient evidence to file criminal charges against Clark – but the damage to the system’s image had already been done.
“This [program] was implemented in at least an unethical manner,” Solomeno said. “And at the close of that 18-month investigation, the prosecutor said that they found insufficient evidence of criminal conduct, but he referred the matter to several ethics agencies… Our bar shouldn’t be, it’s unethical but it’s not criminal.”
After the investigation, many municipalities worked to withdraw themselves from the program (and at least one, Marlboro, remains exempted), and elected officials called for its elimination. During the competitive State Senate race for the 11th district in 2017, for example, both Republican State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Red Bank) and Democratic challenger Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch) were heavily critical of the program.
The system continued to lose in court as recently as March of this year. In a ruling that found the county was not exempt from state tax laws, New Jersey Tax Court Judge Mala Sundar wrote that “[t]here is nothing in the record to establish that the annual reassessments actually result in all properties being brought to 100% of market value, or that there is any meaningful oversight to ensure that this is the case.”
In other words, Sundar found that one of O’Scanlon’s and Moore’s chief arguments for the system, that it would result in more accurate and fair appraisals, wasn’t necessarily true.
Yet despite its checkered past, the property tax system’s actual mechanics have seemingly proven successful.
Moody’s Investors Service praised the system in 2017, and the International Association of Assessment Officers gave the county its 2019 Distinguished Assessment Jurisdiction Award, granted annually to an assessment system that is “an improvement over prior programs in that jurisdiction and is generally recognized as a component of a model assessment system and contributing factor to equity in property taxation.”
The latter award was merrily welcomed by Monmouth County’s elected officials, including several Democrats, many of whom had been scathingly critical in earlier years.
O’Scanlon also noted that one objective measure of success, how many tax appeals are filed every year, speaks in the program’s favor.
“Our system, because it’s so accurate, reduces appeals by 80%, 90%,” he said. “Which is another statement about how people are pretty happy, because they’re not contesting the value of their home.”
Lauding or dismissing the program wholesale, then, both seem out of the question. Instead, it’s left in something of a gray zone – and thus becomes an ideal political football.
The fight for the 13th
The 13th district is, in most respects, a dauntingly Republican district. It hasn’t elected a Democrat to the legislature since 1987, and when O’Scanlon was last on the ballot, he won by just over 10 points.
Which is, perhaps, why Solomeno has chosen to focus so heavily on an issue that has no clear partisan identity. The notion that property taxes are frustrating is, after all, common to Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike.
“I have spoken with homeowners, I’ve spoken with small businesses, I’ve spoken with elected officials,” Solomeno said. “Regardless of where they fall – whether they’re Democrats, Republicans, or independents – consistently, they speak about the problem of property taxes… In this race, finally we’re offering people a solution that can help stabilize property taxes and can reset the system.”
But frustration with property taxes in general and frustration with Monmouth County’s assessment system are two very different things, which O’Scanlon says Solomeno is disingenuously attempting to combine for political benefit.
“If you can lie to people and say, ‘Declan O’Scanlon is raising your property taxes faster than they should go up,’ that is gold, politically,” O’Scanlon said. “And [Solomeno] thinks that that’s a win. And it might be, because a lot of people just negatively react to property taxes.”
Moore said that many of Solomeno’s specific claims against the system, among them that property taxes go up more than they should every year and that a “robot” is in charge of determining a home’s value, are also intended to mislead voters. He added that the tax board has invited Solomeno to speak with them on the issue, but received no response.
“Mr. Solomeno wants to revert back to a less fair and less transparent system,” Moore said. “He’s not being truthful. He’s implying that all taxes go up because it appreciates. That’s disingenuous.”
Ultimately, the battle over the reassessment system – and possibly the 13th Senate district – may hinge on who can reach voters first and explain the debate from their perspective. And while Solomeno’s canvassers and mailers may help his cause, supporters of the system have a multiyear head start.
“Once we explain what this new system is about, [Monmouth County residents] clearly accept the new system,” Moore said. “The problem is the misinformation that goes out there. Over the course of the last five, six years, I’ve been in over 40 towns in the county explaining the system.”
“We welcome the opportunity to speak to people,” he added. “If there’s an issue, we want to know what the issue is so we can correct it. We’re all about the fair distribution of taxes. But we want to do it in a proactive way.”