Tax Abatement Suit Article
Monday, April 24, 2000
Zone: NEW JERSEY
Section: SOUTH JERSEY
VOORHEES OFFICIALS FAIL TO HALT TAX CASE
THEIR MOVE TO DISMISS A SUIT OVER TAX ABATEMENT WAS DENIED.
THE TOWNSHIP WILL NOW ANSWER THE COMPLAINT.
By Brendan January, INQUIRER SUBURBAN STAFF
A resident's challenge to the township's authority to grant tax breaks has survived its first legal hurdle: A judge has denied the township's motion to dismiss the case.
Marco Agostini's lawsuit in Camden County Superior Court argues that Voorhees has no authority to give tax abatements. Specifically, it challenges an abatement granted in December to H.C. Streenlandfor a 140-bed assisted-living facility he plans to build on Route 73.
Judge John Fratto denied the township's motion to dismiss Agostini's suit April 14 because of "factual disputes," though he did not specify which facts were in question.
By the end of next week, the township will submit to the court a written response to Agostini's complaint, said Jeffrey Beenstock, who is handling the litigation for the township.
"We're hoping for a quick resolution," said Beenstock, who said he would again ask the court to dismiss the case once the "factual disputes" were settled.
The township has granted three other abatements since 1995 - to Target, AAA, and R.F. Power Products.
The township got its authority to grant abatements in 1978 when the Camden County Planning Board designated it an area in "need of rehabilitation."
But Agostini argues that the authority applies only to homeowners seeking tax breaks when upgrading their houses. In any case, he says, the 1978 designation has expired.
The township has no legal or moral authority to grant tax abatements to businesses when the economy is booming, Agostini said. Voorhees is growing rapidly, and residents have approved a nonbinding referendum asking the township to spend up to $10 million to preserve open space.
The Township Committee "does not have the authority to approve tax abatements to any applicants," Agostini wrote, "[e]xcept in areas in need of rehabilitation or in areas with a trend in deterioration."
Barbara Casey, township solicitor, rejected Agostini's argument that the township's status had expired. She said a law passed by the legislature in 1991 allowed townships designated as areas in need of improvement in 1978 to keep that distinction.
"The law doesn't say, 'If conditions haven't changed,' " Casey said. "It says that if we qualify under the old law, we qualify for the new law. The law is objective."
Beenstock said Agostini was challenging an ordinance passed in 1995. Ordinances must be legally challenged within 45 days, although a judge may extend the time because of public interest.
"But there's no public interest," Beenstock said. "It's all Marco - a single plaintiff."
Casey also directed her ire at Agostini. "The most dangerous person of all is a person who says things without doing their homework and so distorts the message," she said. "And there are people out there who don't understand the technicalities."
Committeeman Harry Platt and Deputy Mayor Craig Reider said tax abatement was a tool necessary to attract clean development that brings in lots of tax revenue.
"I agree with it because every town around us has it," Platt said. "We really need it. Business is still business. We have to cut a deal to bring them in, and we have to think past tomorrow."
Other towns give out tax abatements, including Cherry Hill, Collingswood, Audubon and Gloucester Township."It's not a blank check" for the businesss, Reider said. "It allows you to hopefully cherry-pick good ratables for the town."
Landowners pay 20 percent of the taxes the first year, leaving no sudden hole in the budget, Platt said. Tax payments increase in 20 percent increments until they reach 100 percent after five years.
Also, Platt said, only four tax abatements have been granted in the last five years.
"It's not quite the epidemic that people are screaming about," he said.
Platt said the 77,000-square-foot senior citizen assisted-living complex planned for Route 73 would increase annual taxes on the land from $15,600 to $220,000 without straining township services.
"They don't need services. There are no school problems," Platt said. "You'll get ambulance calls, but we bill for ambulance calls. It's a win-win situation for everybody."
Copyright 2000 PHILADELPHIA NEWSPAPERS INC.