Planet Princeton

Judge Rules Princeton Residents Do Not Need to Pay Extra Fees in University Tax Case

Bianco
Tax Court Judge Vito Bianco

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.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • FreshAir

    Well good for you, for wanting to do that, but our current Mayor and other PU affiliated Council members will not let you. Nor will the University cooperate. Seemingly aware of the dangers of “polarization”, PU President & Trustee Christopher Eisgruber nonetheless encouraged all PU grads at commencement “… to participate in acts of humanistic daring, imaginative invention, and creative construction….” as the good & right thing to do. How ironic. Perhaps, it is “creative construction” that allows Eisgruber & his cohort to lounge like Scrooge McDuck counting Pu’s endless mountain of cash, while taking support from the wallets of struggling neighbors. Eisgruber’s call to renew civic culture was perhaps intended as a joke? If elected Anne, you risk becoming part of the joke being played on every resident taxpayer…and, frankly, you seem to have more ethics than most.

  • Anne Waldron Neumann

    In fact, Mr. Afran SHOULD challenge how much the University’s property is assessed, not just whether it is tax-exempt. Any settlement in the case may well depend on the amount at which we assess the University’s property. Princeton University values its own land and buildings at $4.3 billion. And even this valuation, for various technical reasons, may be much too low. Meanwhile, we assess the University’s Princeton property at just $1.9 billion. If I am elected to Council in the June 7 Democratic primary, I will make it my business to correct this discrepancy.

  • FreshAir

    As the Judge commented “Typically it is the municipality proper making such a challenge…”. Not so here. Our leadership places the tax burden to fulfill the needs & demands of non-profits onto Princeton’s low and middle income taxpayer/homeowners everyday. Hopefully, the judge will order those governing our town to fairly assess taxes due, and will also demand that town leadership cease supporting non-profits that aren’t providing essential public services to all townspeople. Clearly, good causes are already well funded by supportive individuals and companies. Sad, that it will take a court order to achieve fairness in this case.

  • Peter S.

    I wonder why Princeton Municipality is neutral on this issue.
    Let me guess – ‘those people’ have severed ties to the University and almost no connection to the residents.
    It would be like a cutting a limb you are sitting on.
    Yikes – times to change!!!!!!!!!

  • Robert Dana

    It would be helpful to know what the underlying statute says. If it gives the Court leeway, fine. If not, the judge has no business making up new laws.

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