Board approves theater for West End School

Staff Writer

 The NJ Repertory Company was given approval by the Long Branch Planning Board to construct a 125-seat theater at the site of the former West End School.  PHOTO COURTESY OF THE LONG BRANCH SCHOOL DISTRICT The NJ Repertory Company was given approval by the Long Branch Planning Board to construct a 125-seat theater at the site of the former West End School. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE LONG BRANCH SCHOOL DISTRICT LONG BRANCH—NJ Repertory Company was given the green light last week to open a second location at the West End Elementary School.

Gabor Barabas, executive director of NJ Rep, said prior to gaining site plan approval during the Dec. 15 Planning Board meeting that a theater in West End will add to the business district.

“We’ve truly been given a remarkable opportunity, a once in a lifetime chance, to turn the West End School into the West End Performing Arts Center,” Barabas said. “West End is a remarkable neighborhood and we are very excited because of the iconic businesses.

“It is the perfect place to create a cultural renaissance for the city.”

The proposal includes a 150-seat main theatre, a 35-seat rehearsal theater and a 75- seat “black box” theater for additional performances, as well as two additional movie theaters with museum and gallery space.

NJ Rep. also has plans to hold performances on the “great lawn,” which will be a crafted lawn area where the school’s athletic fields are currently located.

The West End School is a multi-story 27,000 square foot building that will be expanded an additional 20,000 square feet to accommodate NJ Rep.

NJ Rep agreed to purchase the circa- 1920s structure on West End Avenue for $2.25 million from the Long Branch School District, which closed the long-time elementary school in 2014.

Barabas said the theater company plan on beginning to put on shows in the current building this upcoming spring and construction will be done in six phases.

Barabas explained some of the programs planned for the West End Performing Arts Center.

“What we propose is building a cultural center that will serve generations to come,” Barabas said. “We plan on presenting plays, comedies, musicals, programs for children and young adults and their families, providing classes on performing arts and developing museum space.”

According to Barabas, the center will be open during the week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with performances in evening from Thursday to Saturday and matinees on Satur- day and Sunday.

NJ Rep currently is the host to about 20,000 people a year and is based at the 70- seat Lumia Theatre at 179 Broadway.

In 2014, Barabas confirmed that the theater company was looking at secondary locations. He said the preference was always to open a second location in Long Branch.

Barabas said NJ Rep has a reputation that will lead to success in the second location.

“Although there were some difficult times at the beginning, we gradually built a successful theater,” he said. “In 18 years, we produced over 100 plays.”

NJ Rep currently produces about six shows, hosts about 25 readings of new plays in development and holds classes in playwriting for adults and children.

Barabas, who founded the theater company with his wife, SuzAnne Barabas, the company’s artistic director, said the intent has always been to expand the theater to a larger, or secondary, location on Broadway.

The theater on lower Broadway is located within the city’s Broadway Arts redevelopment zone, which previously included plans for an expansive arts district, retail space and residential areas along lower Broadway. However, due to litigation and foreclosure proceedings involving the developer, the plans have not materialized.

Cancer care center rising in Middletown

Staff Writer

Residents of Monmouth County will soon have easier access to cuttingedge cancer care, treatments and medicines when Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center opens a new 304,000-square-foot outpatient treatment facility in Middletown in December 2016.

“Construction at the site is currently underway,” said Richard Barakat, deputy physician-in-chief for MSK Regional Care Network and Cancer Alliance. “All the mechanical equipment is in place, the duct work and utilities have been installed, more lighting is being put in for patients … and now we are really focusing on the redesign of the interior space.”

MSK Monmouth will be situated on a 40-acre property at 480 Red Hill Road off Garden State Parkway exit 114.

The Red Hill Road property was home to a three-story, 285,000-square-foot office building last occupied by Lucent Technologies a decade ago.

“What we did was looked at the areas where a significant number of our patients come from,” Barakat said. “This is an area where approximately seven percent of our patients travel to the city from, and this building was available, was large, could be fitted out very well for medical purposes [and] was in a fantastic location being right off the Garden State Parkway.”

When doors open in December, 2016, patients from Monmouth, Middlesex and Ocean counties and other surrounding communities with different cancers such as lymphoma, breast, lung, colon and gynecological cancers, will have access to the most advanced care under one roof.

MSK physicians and nurses will provide services ranging from chemotherapy, radiation oncology, diagnostic and interventional radiology, ambulatory surgery and endoscopy, social work, nutrition and genetics counseling and other support and survivorship services.

“The unique thing is that this is the first site we will be performing outpatient surgery,” Barakat said. “Surgical consultations can be done here, and we will have the tools and the resources to perform minor operations here.”

Barakat said the advantage of having a centrally located site like this is that patients who might have undergone major surgery at the center’s city location may need further treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy, which can make you sick and tired. He said the central location is making it more convenient for patients and puts less of a strain on their bodies, and on family members.

“The incidence of cancer in and around Monmouth County is expected to increase by 17 percent over the next 10 years,” he said. “This is due in part to population growth and the success of screening programs at detecting new cancers, as well as to the rising median age of the population.”

Barakat said that by MSK Monmouth employing more than 800 clinical trials, new techniques and treatments could be found to combat cancers.

“At MSK we are constantly working to expand the clinical trials to increase the spectrum of studies we’ve gone through and to give us the best outcome and make novel treatments available to our patients,” he said.

The building that will house the center — which was approved by the Middletown Township Planning Board in January 2013 — is currently undergoing renovations to also accommodate more than 120,000 square feet of clinical space, according to Barakat.

Extra room will be used to also create a 50,000-square-foot data center, which will house research, health records and other digital information under one roof.

“This is about doing what’s best for the patients and seeing how to make it more convenient for them, and we look forward to bringing the care to them, making it more local and more patient-friendly,” Barakat said.

Manasquan teen celebrates birthday with food drive

Staff Writer

MANASQUAN — When Xander Bossone wanted to celebrate his 11th birthday in 2010 he wanted to do something different and help others, so he decided to organize a food drive.

Now for his 16th birthday Xander, a sophomore at Manasquan High School, collected more than 2,000 pounds of food to benefit the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties and Move For Hunger during the sixth annual fill a truck food drive held in the parking lot of the Acme Manasquan on Dec. 13.

Donna Bossone said her son originally planned on having a party for his Dec. 22 birthday but asked his friends to bring a donation in lieu of a birthday present.

“He started when he was 11, and he just completed his sixth year this year,” she said. “He said he wanted to do something for his birthday different and he was actually going to have a pizza party and collect cans and ask everyone to bring canned food.”

According to Bossone, a lot of work goes into the weeks leading up to the annual food drive.

“It is word of mouth but we do a lot of logistical work as well, we have a printer in town that donates upwards of 3,000 flyers, we stuff mailboxes and hang posters in all the local businesses in town,” she said. “We go to all the local schools and hand out flyers there.

“That whole two weeks prior we get all of that done so people definitely come out for it.”

For the 2015 drive Xander collected 2,143 pounds of food to bring the total to 24,427 pounds over the course of six years.

Along with the food, Xander also accepts cash donations and raised $850 in 2015 for the food bank.

Bossone said the 2015 drive was the lowest output yet, largely due to unseasonably warm weather.

“This was the lowest year, we thought with the nice weather it would bring everybody out, and it was completely the opposite,” Bossone said. “It was very slow this year.

“We’ve worked in snow and rain and 15 degree weather and had tons of people come out, and this year with nice weather everybody was out with their families and no one grocery shopped.”

She said Xander’s goal for this year was 25,000 pounds of food, which he fell about 600 pounds shy of.

“He was just a little bit shy but it’s okay; he’s ready for next year,” Bossone said.

While Xander organizes the drive on his own, he does have help from friends and other volunteers.

“He has the same set of friends who come, and we also have kids who do Key Club and Honors Society who need hours and come and volunteer,” Bossone said. “But it is primarily the same six to eight friends who come every year.”

Move For Hunger is a nonprofit organization that mobilizes the relocation industry to fight hunger and reduce food waste, working with companies across North America to collect unwanted, unopened food from people who are relocating and deliver it to local food banks.

To date, their network of relocation professionals has delivered over 5 million pounds of food to local food banks across North America. For more information or to find out how you can help support Move For Hunger, visit

Today, the FoodBank distributes more than 10 million meals annually through a network of over 300 feeding programs.

For more information visit

Grocery stores expand services

Staff Writer

 Children of all ages watch a gingerbread cookie demonstration by Dani B. Fiori at Whole Foods Market in Marlboro on Dec. 17.  STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR Children of all ages watch a gingerbread cookie demonstration by Dani B. Fiori at Whole Foods Market in Marlboro on Dec. 17. STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR Area grocery stores are slowly changing the way they cater to their customers by providing more services and programs to help make a regular trip to the supermarket a day filled with fun, learning and adventure.

From nutritional assistance, children’s classes and even free home delivery services, supermarkets have become hotspots of activities and resources, showing it is not just about the shopping, but about community togetherness. “I feel like we are definitely providing something more than just shopping,” said Laura Fette, marketing team leader at Whole Foods Market in Marlboro.

“I feel like the store has been a destination for events, whether kid- or adult-focused, and we are even finding people within the community, partnering with them and helping them to build their own businesses, and I think that has been what has worked really well here — finding what our community needs and really catering to it.”

 Grocery stores are offering more than food shopping such as this gingerbread cookie decorating class held at Whole Foods Market in Marlboro on Dec. 17.  STAFF PHOTGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR Grocery stores are offering more than food shopping such as this gingerbread cookie decorating class held at Whole Foods Market in Marlboro on Dec. 17. STAFF PHOTGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR According to Fette, Whole Foods in Marlboro offers some unique partnerships and classes for its clientele, such as with Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge for cooking classes and Macaroni Kids of Western Monmouth County, where children get to make their own pizza and macaroni necklaces.

“Finding these local experts who are really trying to build their businesses as well, and collaborating together to bring programming inside the store, people see we are beyond a shopping destination,” Fette said. “We’re offering the full scope of things.”

Fette also said the store offers a You & Me Toddler Program several times a month.

“Each Whole Foods Market is different, and I really feel like that we cater to our community … we’re becoming a part of people’s routine beyond just shopping,” she said.

Aside from classes, Michael Sinatra, public relations and public affairs director at Whole Foods Market’s Northeast Region, said the supermarket chain also offers additional services such as catering and takes pride in giving back to local communities.

“A lot of people enjoy taking advantage of our programming, such as our special ordering and catering services and our special menus,” he said.

At Whole Foods Market, customers can make shopping quick and easy by reserving and ordering meals, entrees, and party musthaves online and then picking them up at the store.

“We definitely see a higher volume of orders this time of year, but customers are aware and use this service at various times of the year,” Sinatra said.

The supermarket chain also participates in community giving days or what they refer to as “5% Days.”

“Each store is always donating food to area food banks and shelters,” Sinatra said. “Then several times a year, we hold community giving days where five percent of that day’s net sales are donated to a local area charity or educational organization.”

The Whole Foods Market in Marlboro will also join the Manalapan and Marlboro municipalities for holiday tree lighting events, providing baked goods, hot chocolate and company.

“I feel like we do a lot in the community,” Fette said. “People are coming here for things, but we’re also coming to them as well … and I think that makes a big difference too.”

Valerie Fox, media relations coordinator at Wegmans Food Markets, said providing services such as catering and a free public app is about making customers’ lives and shopping experience as simple as possible.

“Wegmans’ aim is always to help mealtimes for families be as great and easy as possible,” she said.

“Our services help save customers time … but I think the number one thing that separates us are our people and customer service representatives who provide an added convenience.”

One service Fox said Wegmans provides is a free downloadable app that makes going to the supermarket less of a hassle.

“The Wegmans app is a very useful tool,” she said. “Customers can create their shopping list right there, and it’ll sort everything by aisle, and as you add items to your list, it will automatically estimate the total so you can manage your budget.”

On the app, customers can also browse through hundreds of recipes and add ingredients to their shopping list with just one touch and can even watch easy how-to videos to make meals easier.

“We also offer three ways for customers to enjoy our catering services, and that is either by going online, ordering by phone or by coming into your local Wegmans store,” Fox said.

From simple cheese and deli platters to cocktail party menus, complete holiday dinners and even delicious dessert trays, catering experts and chefs help with cooking and planning so families can have a memorable gathering.

“Many families have told us that they just don’t have time to do all the prep work themselves, so while this is not a full catering service with people coming to your home to serve, it provides our customers a service where they can order all their party-planning needs in one place.”

At ShopRite, a growing service is the supermarket’s ShopRite From Home program, which allows customers to save time and energy by ordering their groceries from the convenience of their own residence.

“The majority of ShopRite stores offer the ShopRite From Home service, which allows customers to shop online and pick up groceries at the store or have those groceries delivered right to their doorstep,” said Karen O’Shea, spokeswoman for Wakefern Food Corp.

Whether you are a busy parent, are injured or can’t make it to the store for some other reason, the ShopRite From Home service is an effortless way to get all the groceries you need with the click of a button.

“The ShopRite Mobile App and ShopRite From Home service allow customers to place orders electronically, and those grocery orders are then shopped in store by personal, trained shoppers,” O’Shea said. “Customers can tell our shoppers how they like their produce picked or cold cuts sliced. Our shoppers will also call customers at home if we are out of a certain item.

“Service is key, and it’s the reason our ShopRite From Home service continues to grow each year.”

Heather Casey of Edison said that, with being a mom of four sons and she and her husband both working full time, ShopRite from Home allows her to order her groceries on her time and schedule the deliveries for when it is most convenient.

“With four kids and both my husband and I working full time, every second counts,” Casey said. “We started using ShopRite from Home when my youngest son was born and food shopping became an added challenge.

“It is so helpful because we can shop from our phones or computer early in the morning or late in the evening when the kids are asleep and schedule pickups [or] deliveries around our work/family schedules. I rarely see the inside of the store any more because this service is so helpful!”

The ShopRite Pharmacy App makes getting prescriptions easier for customers.

“The ShopRite Pharmacy App makes managing prescriptions simple by allowing customers to refill prescriptions and transfer prescriptions right to their local ShopRite,” O’Shea said.

Diana Fransis, retail dietitian program supervisor at Wakefern Food Corp., works closely with more than 120 registered dietitians across 130 stores, training them to work with customers and educating them on making healthier choices while food shopping, as well as carrying out these choices by preparing healthy, well-balanced meals.

“Our registered dietitians will sit down with customers in a free one-on-one consultation, talk about their needs and goals, find out what they are looking for, dive into a diet plan and will even walk around the store with customers showing them where the food that is best for them is,” Fransis said.

ShopRite’s Culinary Workshops is a hands-on cooking class program taught by professionals who share their skills and knowledge, helping customers acquire limitless meal possibilities that include delicious, healthy ingredients.

“They’re cooking full meals with appetizers, entrees, desserts, and we even have a kids cooking class that teaches them how to make a very easy meal.”

According to Fransis, part of the supermarket’s Health and Wellness program includes the Dietitian’s Selection recipe program, a collection of recipes featuring healthy ingredients and essential nutrients while limiting the amount of fats, cholesterol and sodium.

“People are becoming much more aware about healthy eating and getting proper nutrition, and there is so much that our registered dietitians and chefs offer and can help with,” Fransis said. “All our services are free.”

Arlene Putterman, manager of public and community relations at Stop & Shop’s New York Metro Division, said getting prepared for the holidays or other festive occasions is easy as customers can order party platters, desserts, cakes and other arrangements online for in-store pickup and can order flowers.

“Stop & Shop provides fully prepared holiday dinners,” she said. “All the fixings without the prep work.”

Putterman said the supermarket’s Peapod service also makes delivering groceries to your home or business easy.

“Peapod online home delivery service strives to deliver convenience and value,” she said. “Customers can order online or on Peapod’s free mobile app for grocery home delivery or car-side service at one of our many pickup locations.”

Clients have found caring touch for 30 years

Staff Writer

 Lucy Melillo is the second-generation owner of Wig Illusions, Manalapan, which offers products to individuals who are battling diseases that result in hair loss.  JENNIFER ORTIZ/STAFF Lucy Melillo is the second-generation owner of Wig Illusions, Manalapan, which offers products to individuals who are battling diseases that result in hair loss. JENNIFER ORTIZ/STAFF A second-generation family business is marking 30 years of service to individuals who are battling diseases that result in hair loss.

Wig Illusions, in the Summerton Plaza, Route 9, Manalapan, was founded by Elizabeth (Betty) Melillo, who lived in Manalapan for more than 40 years. Melillo died in October 2014.

The business is now owned by Betty’s daughter-in-law, Lucy Melillo, who has owned Wig Illusions since 2006 after working for her mother-in-law for seven years.

As she marks the business’s 30 years of operation, Lucy Melillo recalled how Betty, who was a wig stylist her entire life, founded Wig Illusions in space at Kilmer Plaza, Marlboro.

“It was a chair, a shower curtain and everything was ordered by mail,” Melillo said. “She needed a little help washing and setting wigs. … So when I was home with (my) babies, I would do that work for her.

“As soon as my youngest child went into preschool, I started coming in and learning the business. I worked an apprenticeship with her for many years … that’s how I learned,” Melillo said.

In 2006, Betty decided to retire from the business she had founded 21 years earlier.

“She gave me the option of buying the business. I was very scared because I didn’t know the business aspects,” Melillo said, adding that she had lost her sister and mother to cancer in 2005.

“It was super tough for me. … Did I want to stay in the cancer field? Because I suffered for a year with my sister and as soon as my sister passed away my mom got diagnosed and passed away five months later. I was so saddened, but I decided the women here, the rewards I get from my job, are (worth it),” Melillo said.

With support from her husband, Gerald, she took a leap of faith and became the owner of Wig Illusions.

“I decided to start working by appointment to see how that would work out. Walkins are welcome, but this isn’t a place people are going to walk into unless it’s someone looking for extensions and things like that,” Melillo said.

Melillo said when Wig Illusions opened, it did not primarily cater to people who were losing their hair during a battle with cancer and other illnesses.

“Because of illnesses that make your hair come out, we saw it was very important that we move to a private location to give people personalized and private rooms,” Melillo said.

She said her relationships with her clients are very meaningful and helped her make the decision to become the owner of Wig Illusions. “I’ve cried, I’ve laughed, I’ve hugged, I’ve gone to people’s houses. Some of these women are fighting for their lives,” she said.

Client Marie Pellicone said it is that compassion that has made Wig Illusions a success.

“Lucy takes care of all of her clients … She takes the time and she has the understanding for people’s needs. … Whether it is medical or just a beauty aspect, people come from all over to be with her because she’s that good at what she does, and it’s the human feeling that comes across from her that makes the difference,” Pellicone said. The process starts with an appointment and a free consultation. Melillo’s advice to individuals coming in for a wig for fashion reasons is to cut out pictures of the look they would like to achieve. Her advice to people facing the prospect of hair loss is not to wait.

“A lot of times, for my chemo people, doctors will say, ‘you’re only going to thin, you’ll be OK,’ and they come in here crying because their hair is coming out.

“For anybody who is going to go through chemotherapy, I recommend that before they start treatment, they make an appointment; that is very important. Sooner is better than later. If they come to me (before treatment), they will have everything prepared,” Melillo said.

Items available at Wig Illusions include head coverings, hats, scarves, sleep caps, turbans, wig spray and more. All wig services are offered on premises.

Melillo said her clients are her top priority.

“I think about what happened to me before I took over the business, with caring for my sister and caring for my mother. When people walk in, I know exactly what they are thinking, what they are feeling, their emotions, because I have been through it,” she said. “If I can make you look good and you can feel good, I’ve done my job.”

Wig Illusions may be reached at 732- 431-9629.

Oceanport considers opting out of tax assessment program

Staff Writer

OCEANPORT — The Borough Council is gathering information and considering opting out of the highly scrutinized tax assessment pilot program.

The council discussed possibly leaving the Real Property Assessment Demonstration Program during the Dec. 2 meeting after the Monmouth County Board of Taxation ruled that municipalities could opt out of the program by April.

Business Administrator John O. Bennett III said that because the borough has yet to award any contracts involved in participation in the program, the borough can continue to gather information.

“The only contract that has been awarded by this governing body is a contract to our borough engineer for purposes of returning the tax maps to the borough,” Bennett said. “We are under an order to do a revaluation, but no bidding has been done.

“Because we haven’t entered into a contract, we kind of have the ability to let the dust settle.”

The county’s assessment program, which began in 2014, is designed to reduce costs for municipalities by replacing costly town-wide property revaluations with annual assessments that adjust property values based on sales data.

In recent weeks, the program and appraisal company Realty Data Systems (RDS) have been highly scrutinized by public officials, questioning ethics concerns with RDS and the overall effectiveness of the program.

According to Oceanport Tax Assessor John Butow, the parameters for which a municipality can opt out of the program have not yet been conveyed locally and it is unknown whether the county tax board has the authority to allow an opt-out.

“We don’t know; we have not received anything from the County Board of Taxation for direction on this,” he said. “This opt-out option was just voted on; the mechanics of that we don’t have yet, and the county tax board said [municipalities can opt out] unless directed by another authority.

“So they made the statement and now we need to make sure they are the proper authority that can say it and accept any optout statement.”

While the criticisms have been ongoing in recent weeks, Butow said there have not been a lot of specifics as to why the program should be suspended.

“I have not seen anyone on the other side say to me these are the factual reasons it is not working,” Butow said. “I don’t believe it is the best decision at this point; let’s let the facts come out during the next few months.”

Butow said he is part of a group aimed at reviewing the overall effectiveness of the demonstration program.

“I am on the steering committee, I am the assessor rep on the steering committee,” he said. “The pilot program was started to improve on an antiquated tax system; we haven’t come out with a final report yet.

“So at this point I don’t think that Oceanport needs to have any position.”

As part of the demonstration program, the county has ordered Oceanport to undergo a revaluation.

Butow said even without the demonstration program the borough likely would have been ordered to undergo a revaluation.

“As part of the demonstration program, given the timeline of our last revaluation and the effect of Sandy and other issues, we were ordered to do a revaluation for the 2017 tax year,” he said.

Butow said the revaluation couldn’t move forward until the state approves updated tax maps for the borough.

“In order to comply with the regulations we have to update our tax maps,” he said. “Unfortunately, our tax maps did not comply with the new mapping standards, which forced us to redo all our maps.

“Now that we are going to inherit the fort, we had to get from the government surveys, so this has been an arduous process.”

Councilman John Patti said he wants the decision to be discussed at a future council meeting.

“It sounds like this program has a lot of problems. I don’t have a problem tabling this,” he said. “I think it is a good idea to get more information, I don’t think the information that we are going to be getting is going to lead us to stay in.”

While Oceanport considers options, another municipality is embroiled in litigation over the demonstration program.

During its Oct. 19 meeting, the Middletown Township Committee opted to terminate a contract with Realty Data Systems, the company contracted to conduct assessments for the demonstration program in the majority of Monmouth County municipalities, citing concerns over the bid process, in addition to cost factors.

Last month Realty Data Systems filed suit against Middletown, citing breach of contract and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and a violation of New Jersey’s civil RICO Act.

However, Township Attorney Brian Nelson said Middletown has no plans to return to the original contract.

“RDS is grossly mistaken if it thinks it’s going to intimidate Middletown’s elected officials from looking out for the best interests of the taxpayers by making entirely facetious claims it started shopping to the press on the eve of Thanksgiving,” Nelson said.

“We look forward to learning how RDS thinks it can change the terms of the contract its bid was predicated upon, which is the only contract that was ever authorized by the township’s governing body.”

According to a Monmouth County press release, in 2015, 33 percent, or 70,995 properties, had a decrease in their tax bill while 7 percent, or 14,880 properties, experienced a tax increase of more than $1,000.

Holiday Bake Sale set for Dec. 20

St. James’ Church will sponsor a Holiday Bake Sale from 9 a.m.-noon Dec. 20 in the Parish Hall, 300 Broadway, Long Branch.

Items include Eggnog cake, Christmas pound cake and holiday pies. Parking is available behind the church. For questions, please call the parish administrator at 732- 222-1411 from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

End-of-year campaign targets drunk drivers

Local law enforcement agencies will be cracking down on drivers impaired by alcohol or drugs as part of the annual end-of-year “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” statewide campaign.

Through Jan. 1, police officers will conduct saturation patrols and sobriety checkpoints looking for motorists who may be driving while intoxicated.

The national effort endeavors to raise awareness about the dangers of impaired driving through a combination of high-visibility enforcement and public education.

Last year, 27 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities in New Jersey were alcohol-related. Nationally, more than 10,000 people die each year in drunk driving crashes.

In December 2013 alone, there were 733 people killed in crashes involving a drunk driver with 23 of these deaths occurring on Christmas Day.

Law enforcement agencies participating in the Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over 2015 Year End Holiday Crackdown offer the following advice for holiday season:

– Take mass transit, a taxicab or ask a sober friend to drive you home;

– Spend the night where the activity or party is held;

– If you see an impaired driver on the road, contact law enforcement;

– Always use a seat belt; and

– Be responsible. If someone you know is drinking, do not let that person get behind the wheel.

Tax appeals may be costly

Staff Writer

Every year, property owners file tax appeals in droves in the hopes of lowering their assessed value and paying less in property taxes.

However, doing so can be an expensive proposition, as many are compelled to hire an attorney and an appraisal company with no guarantee of victory.

Patrick De Luca, a long-time Long Branch resident, filed an unsuccessful tax appeal for his Ocean Avenue home in 2009 and plans to do so again in 2016.

“I went through a lawyer, and at the time I had no problem,” De Luca said. “This year I was approached again [by an attorney] and I am going to do the process again.

“I recently received my new card and I’m at $1.1 million [assessed value] from $954,000. I spoke to my lawyer, and we just have to do it by January 15.” De Luca, like many property owners, said prior to filing the 2009 appeal he did not know much about the tax appeal process.

According to the Middlesex County Tax Board, in order for an application to be acceptable, the property owner must provide between three and five comparable sales in the municipality, and all taxes and municipal charges must be current.

Franklin Colon, tax assessor for East Brunswick, said he often guides taxpayers through the process by providing them with data to help determine whether or not they were assessed correctly.

“A lot of taxpayers come in and, once we give them the books, a lot of them know where they should be,” Colon said. “Really what you are looking for is comparable sales, and that is the basis.

“You can come in and take a look at the data. Come in, talk to the tax assessor and see if you are assessed correctly.”

Colon also said the tax assessors are afforded a 15-percent leeway in either direction on an assessment, meaning a successful appeal must show that the assessment was incorrect by more than 15 percent of the value.

However, even when an application is accepted, tax appeal attorney Michael Mirne, of Ocean Township, said the odds favor the municipality.

“It is not a very difficult process to file, but winning a tax appeal very often requires an appraisal, and the town is afforded the presumption of correctness,” Mirne said. “The assessor does not need to prove his case; it’s the taxpayer needs to be the one to prove the assessment is wrong.

“And very often it is the difference between knowing the tax assessment is wrong and being able to prove it.”

According to Mirne, most property owners do not understand how the tax appeal process works, often comparing assessments to prior years or to neighbors’ assessments, which he said was irrelevant.

“The only thing that matters is whether their assessment exceeds the current value of their property,” he said. “People have a lot of misconceptions about tax appeals, and I have to spend a lot of time explaining these things.

“Out of the people who call me — bear in mind the only people who call me up are all people who feel that they are wrongly assessed — only about one of every seven have a case.”

The process for filing tax appeals has improved in recent years, as Monmouth is one of four counties that allow property owners to file tax appeals online.

Matthew Clark, Monmouth County tax administrator, said switching to an electronic system has benefited both the county and property owners.

“For us it has increased accuracy and it is a very transparent and green process,” Clark said, adding that under the manual system at least three copies of the appeal would need to be made.

Clark said along with being able to file appeals online, taxpayers can also view public records for assessments online, which will allow for more information when making a decision.

“We don’t want anyone filing an appeal unnecessarily because they don’t understand the tax impact or they don’t understand the town went through a reassessment or revaluation,” he said. “They want to see, ‘I wasn’t singled out; I wasn’t the only one who went up $10,000; everyone on my street did.’”

Clark said the aim of property assessment is to create assessments as close to equal of market values as possible.

“Everything that the tax board is doing is creating a fair mechanism for the distribution of the levy,” he said. “And if we can get the individual assessments correct out of the gate, then all the situations that follow like appeals should be lessened to a great degree.”

According to Clark, in 2015 6,063 property owners in Monmouth County filed tax appeals, which is 2.4 percent of the overall properties, and 62 percent were successful.

Property owners assessed at more than $1 million also have the option to file their appeal directly with the New Jersey Tax Board. However, Mirne said the state is currently backlogged with about 60,000 appeals waiting to be heard.

Mirne also said filing an appeal could be an expensive proposition as an appraisal report could cost at least $600 for a residential property and more than $1,000 for a commercial property.

“You might not have a lot of sales of similar houses, so you might have to go by an appraisal report, and an appraisal report is not a cheap thing by any means,” Mirne said.

Mirne also said there are some cases in which a property may be over-assessed but not enough to warrant a tax appeal.

“There is a lot of people who call me every day and tell me they are over-assessed, and I say ‘you might have a case but I’m not going to file because it is just too small for us to get involved in,’” he said. “We need to really be able to save the taxpayer at least $60,000 off their assessment for it to make sense for our firm to take the case.

“If you do need an appraiser, you better make sure you’ll be going to come out saving money because you might end up losing money by the time you pay the appraiser.”

However, Clark said because of the uncertainty of property taxes from year to year the most important thing the property owner should weigh is whether or not the assessment is correct.

“The difficulty about that entire discussion is that you are only estimating what the future tax bill will be, and the system is actually set up where you are not supposed to be weighing what the actual tax impact would be,” he said.

“As a tax administrator I am very careful not to speak on a tax impact because all that we can do is only speak to the assessment and its accuracy.”

According to Clark, there are no patterns as to whether a property owner on the high end or low end of the market is more likely to file an appeal.

“I think it is across the spectrum and town-dependent,” he said.

Currently, municipalities in Monmouth and Middlesex counties are under different systems in assessing properties.

Since 2012 Monmouth County has been assessing properties under the Real Property Assessment Demonstration Program.

Under the program, costly town-wide revaluations, which are normally carried out every 10 years, are replaced with an annual inspection of 20 percent of properties and a town-wide readjustment based on sales data.

In Middlesex County, municipalities only conduct revaluations about every 10 years.

Wayne Hamilton, business administrator for Monroe Township, said approximately 1,000 property owners filed appeals per year from 2010 and 2014 before Monroe conducted a township-wide revaluation, which cost the township about $1.5 million. The revaluation was conducted in 2013 and took effect in 2014 in Monroe.

“We went through a very trying period where we had thousands of tax appeals prior to the revaluation,” he said. “Most of those were successful appeals, and since we did the revaluation, the number of appeals has gone way down.

“You are probably looking at, in terms of loss of revenue to the municipality, about $15.5 million as a result of those successful tax appeals.”

Colon said the number of appeals filed year to year is directly related to the condition of the housing market.

“Early 2000’s there weren’t many tax appeals at all because the market was stable,” he said. “Then we had the increase in the market and then the market had tanked in 2008, and that generated the tax appeals.”

Another difference between Monmouth and Middlesex counties is the deadline for when an appeal must be filed. Currently taxpayers in Monmouth County must file by Jan. 15 in accordance with the new program and taxpayers in Middlesex County must file by April 1.

In Monmouth County property owners may file tax appeals online at login.aspx.

Middlesex County taxpayers may download the application at Finance/Pages/Tax-Appeals2.aspx and must physically submit the application to the Middlesex County Board of Taxation at the county administration building in New Brunswick.