Residents have won another victory in their lawsuit challenging the tax-exempt status of properties owned by Princeton University.
New Jersey Tax Court Judge Vito Bianco ruled yesterday that the more than two dozen plaintiffs in the case are not required to pay extra court fees.
Normally when a resident challenges the assessed value a tax assessor has assigned to a property, the resident would be required to pay a small claims fee of $250 for the first parcel and $50 for each additional parcel challenged, or a $250 fee per complaint in tax court. If fees were calculated that way in the Princeton University case, the plaintiffs would owe the courts an additional $25,450.
The lawyer for the plaintiffs argued that the additional fees would be a hardship, and the lawyer for the university argued that the plaintiffs should be required to pay the extra fees. The municipality remained neutral on the issue.
Bianco noted the unique nature of the case in his ruling on the fees.
“The tax court has never seen any actions like these before – private citizens challenging the decision of a local tax assessor in granting exempt status to certain properties owned by a not-for-profit university with extensive land holdings,” he wrote. “Typically it is the municipality proper making such a challenge; and, there is more commonly just one property, or perhaps just a few properties at issue, where even if fees were calculated per parcel, they would not add up to a significant amount.”
In his ruling waiving the extra fees, Bianco said the tax court rules do not specifically address exemption cases. The rules address assessment cases. The residents are challenging the tax-exemptions for the properties, not the actual assessments. Exemption cases require a $250 fee per complaint, not per property.
Bianco also wrote that the law provides for a waiver of fees for people who can’t pay, and he said it is the responsibility of the courts to provide equal access without excess costs. The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Bruce Afran, argued the fees would be a hardship. The judge noted that about two dozen plaintiffs in the case are residents from the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood who were adversely affected by the last Princeton tax revaluation.
“The court finds that $25,450 in court costs is a lot to pay for anybody, and would prohibit access to the courts for most,” Bianco wrote.
“The concern over access to our courts and court costs must not be taken lightly,” he wrote.