But one East Hanover man actually has been paying too much.
Since 1990, in addition to property taxes on his split-level home, he’s been paying taxes on a patch of his neighbor’s land.
In August 2008, Edward Seborowski attended a local town planning meeting about a variance that had nothing to do with his property.
“A lengthy discussion of lot sizes and dimensions took place and it provided me with information I never knew,” he said. “When I researched my property dimensions I discovered that it appeared the township was taxing me incorrectly for land that was owned by my neighbor.”
Twenty months later, Seborowski’s fight to recapture his overpaid taxes is nowhere near a conclusion.
DISCOVERING THE ERROR
When Seborowski purchased the home in 1990, all the necessary documentation was filed with the town to be recorded. It included a correct land survey, but somewhere, somehow, a mistake was made when the plot size was recorded.
Most of the homes in the neighborhood sit on rectangular plots of land: 100 feet by 213 feet, or 21,300 square feet. Seborowski’s land, though, has irregular dimensions. His property is only 19,522 square feet: 1,778 square feet less than noted on the tax bill he’d paid every year.
Thinking it was a relatively easy fix, Seborowski headed to the township tax assessor’s office with paperwork and the land survey in hand to make a correction. The township said no.
Seborowski hired a lawyer and they met again with officials. The answer was still no. They went before the Morris County Tax Board to appeal, and they lost. But Seborowski was determined, and two days later, he met again with town officials and he got the change he was seeking.
“It took me over one year and a meeting with the mayor and the township business administrator for the error to finally be corrected on the tax records,” Seborowski said.
That was in August 2009, for a total reduction of $2,100 in assessed value and a $41 reduction in taxes. The correction was finalized starting with the 2010 tax year.
Next, Seborowski asked officials for a reimbursement of the portion of taxes he overpaid for 19 years.
The township said no.
Seborowski could have appealed to the tax board, but because he felt he had no new evidence and his legal bills were mounting, he decided against filing another appeal.
Years of missed deadlines
It seems very reasonable to expect the state to reimburse a taxpayer any overpayment that was made, especially when the taxpayer can prove it was because of the town’s mistake.
But “reasonable” is irrelevant here, and it’s not that simple, tax officials and tax attorneys told Bamboozled.
Like every other homeowner in the state, Seborowski was sent an annual notice of assessment card in the mail, as local tax assessors are required to do by state law.
“The state says the burden of proof is on the property owner, not the municipality or the town,” said Kevin Esposito, East Hanover’s tax assessor. “The state is very clear. They say when assessors send out the notice, if the homeowner doesn’t agree, he must file an appeal.”
Filing an appeal in and of itself isn’t the problem for Seborowski, who said he’d be happy to appeal. The problem is the time frame.
Depending on the town, the deadline to appeal an assessment for that year is usually April 1 or May 1, depending on whether there were recent reassessments of property in a community, said Treasury spokesman Andrew Pratt.
“If a homeowner doesn’t appeal then, he or she won’t get a refund when an error is made,” Pratt said.
So because Seborowski didn’t question each annual assessment, he missed the appeal deadline for each of the past 19 years. It makes sense to put a time limit on an appeal, sure, if a taxpayer ignores a sudden unexplained rise in assessed values from one year to the next.
But in Seborowski’s case, the error was made when he first purchased his home, it seems because someone working for the town recorded the information incorrectly the first time around.
That’s not something Seborowski would notice with his annual assessment notice. (The current East Hanover tax assessor wasn’t there at the time, so he couldn’t offer any reasoning for the initial mistake.)Treasury’s Pratt said courts have ruled against property owners who were granted payments of back taxes by a town council.
In one 1995 Superior Court ruling — a dispute between the township of Monroe and the local finance board — the court said such payments “circumvented statutory tax appeal process” and were therefore unauthorized.
There are some cases that appear to be on Seborowski’s side, including some that grant reimbursements to the taxpayer because of clerical errors made by town officials. Taking the case to court might be his only remedy.
While he’d like to stand on principle and present his case to the court, Seborowski realizes the court expenses and attorney fees will cost more than he might recover — less than $800 — if he won.
“I would hope that the township, realizing the mistake was totally theirs, would do the right thing and reimburse the overpayments,” he said.
‘‘Alert your readers and urge them to take the few minutes to research their property tax situation.”