Holmdel home damaged in fire

HOLMDEL—A Tuesday morning fire broke out in a home in Holmdel just weeks before the homeowners were set to move in.

The Holmdel Police Department responded to an unoccupied home on Hop Brook Lane just after 2 a.m. on Dec. 22.

The home was newly constructed and was approximately two weeks away from being occupied by homeowner. 

The cause is still under investigation by the Holmdel Fire Inspector, Monmouth County Fire Marshall’s Office, Monmouth County Prosecutors Office and Holmdel Detective Bureau. 

Fire departments from Holmdel and several surrounding towns responded along with Holmdel First Aid Squad.  

Any immediate inquiries can be referred to evening Patrol Commander Lt. Robert Philhower.  All other case inquires please refer to Lt. Keith Cannata.

Grocery stores expand services

By KAYLA J. MARSH
Staff Writer

 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 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.”

 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 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 must-haves 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.”

Cancer care center rising in Middletown

By KAYLA J. MARSH
Staff Writer

Residents of Monmouth County will soon have easier access to cutting-edge 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.

Package theft a concern

By JENNIFER ORTIZ and KENNY WALTER
Staff Writers

 STAFF PHOTGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR STAFF PHOTGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR The theft of packages delivered to doorsteps is becoming a bigger problem as more and more people shop online for their Christmas gifts.

Woodbridge Police Capt. Roy Hoppock said package theft has become a growing issue, and there are very few ways to address it.

“It’s a problem. It’s a crime of opportunity is what it comes down to,” he said. “So many more people are [shopping online] and more and more packages are being left on people’s front steps, and people drive by and they see them and they grab them.”

Hoppock said Woodbridge police recently made an arrest involving package theft and charged a woman with three counts of theft by unlawful taking after three packages were taken from an apartment complex on Dec. 7 in the Fords section of Woodbridge.

“We did a follow-up and on Dec. 13 we made an arrest of a female that was staying at [a nearby hotel],” he said. “Most of the time it is difficult to make an arrest unless there is video.”

According to Hoppock, some shoppers utilize their neighbors in an effort to thwart any potential theft.

“If they have the luxury of having some neighbors that don’t work or if the person knows there is going to be a delivery in a day or two, let your neighbor know,” Hoppock said. “That seems to be the best, but not everybody has that luxury.”

Howell Police Detective Sgt. Christian Antunez said thefts of this nature occur sporadically throughout the year, but increase in frequency significantly during the holiday season. He said that as of Dec. 14, police had received at least five reports of thefts of packages since Nov. 1.

“The number is likely higher because some people do not report the thefts to police. We strongly encourage residents to report any thefts to the police department,” Antunez said.

In a public awareness announcement, Howell Police Chief Andrew Kudrick said most thefts of packages occur during the afternoon and/or early evening hours.

Victims are asked to report thefts online at www.howellpolice.org or call the police. In the event the person who stole the item is caught, the merchandise could be returned, Kudrick said.

“Once the item is confirmed to have been delivered and most likely stolen, call the police immediately and file a report with as much information about the theft as possible, including the number of boxes, the items stolen, the value of items stolen, carrier, the time and date of delivery,” Antunez said.

He said the Ramtown area of Howell south of Lakewood-Allenwood Road appeared to be a target for this type of illegal activity.

“We are adding extra patrols in the area to stop and identify suspicious vehicles and persons and to increase visibility. This also includes plainclothes personnel,” Antunez said, adding that the reported thefts remain under investigation.

He said police are working diligently to investigate the crimes that have occurred and to prevent future crimes.

“We encourage residents to be vigilant and to contact the police immediately if they see suspicious vehicles or people in their neighborhood. Suspicious vehicles can include vehicles driving aimlessly, very slowly, up and down the street, apparently lost, such as driving down cul-de-sacs or dead end streets, and other similar actions.

“Suspicious people can exhibit similar behavior and also include clothing meant to conceal their identity, approaching houses and then asking about lost dogs or other fictitious stories when confronted by homeowners and other similar behavior,” Antunez said. “Unfortunately, we cannot be everywhere at once, so we ask that residents bring their delivered packages inside as soon as possible to limit their exposure to thieves. We also ask that neighbors be aware of their surroundings as much as possible to protect the community and to look out for one another.” Kudrick suggested residents might want to view a www.travelers.com “How to Protect Yourself from Package Theft and ID Fraud” article. Tips include having packages delivered at work or choosing a specific delivery time if the retailer provides such an option. Delivery alerts and a trusted neighbor to take one’s package inside for safekeeping are also advised.

“There are undesirables always looking to take advantage of you,” Kudrick said, adding that residents should be aware of their surroundings.

Manalapan Lt. Edward Niesz said the Manalapan Police Department has tips for consumers shopping online.

“We try to get people to either use one of the shipping locations to pick up there, to have the tracking devices so they know exactly when their package is going to be arriving or set up a delivery with a friend, or what a lot of people do now is have packages delivered to their place of employment,” Niesz said.

Niesz said while the problem seems to be growing nationwide, it hasn’t been that big of an issue in Manalapan.

“There is a heightened awareness about it and in our township it hasn’t been as much of a problem,” he said. “In Manalapan we haven’t seen a great increase in it as of late, it’s been sporadic here and there.”

Niesz said while it is difficult to solve crimes involving stolen packages, a lot of homeowners are now using surveillance cameras and uploading the footage to social media to help identify the perpetrators.

Michael, the supervisor of customer service for the U.S. Postal Service in Red Bank, who wouldn’t disclose his last name, said the growing theft problem began about six years ago as online shopping increased.

He said mail carriers are taught different ways to conceal packages so they are not just left in plain site.

“If they have a screen door and the package fits, a lot of times the carriers will put it in between the doors,” Michael said. “Sometimes if they have a side door, they will do something like that, but other than that there is nothing to prevent it.”

Residents are being put on notice that packages delivered to and left outside homes are a target for thieves, particularly around the holidays.

“It is getting worse and worse,” Michael said. “After Thanksgiving is when it becomes larger.

“That’s when it becomes big but it is an all year round problem.”

In a statement from United Parcel Service (UPS), which delivers an estimated 630 million packages between Thanksgiving and New Years Eve, the company has not seen an increase in package theft in recent years.

“UPS delivers about 18 million packages every day, and our data indicate that the rate of incidents involving UPS has been relatively flat over the last few years,” the statement reads. “We have procedures in place to ensure all of our packages are properly delivered.

“We alert our drivers and seasonal driver helpers to specific incidents where law enforcement has contacted us. If a customer contacts UPS to report a stolen package, UPS would work with the original shipper through our claims process to make the consumer whole.”

Delivery tips

 If you are not going to be home, have your packages delivered to work, a neighbor’s or relative’s house

 Have your package delivered to a local store for pick-up

 Track your package so you can be notified when a package arrives

 Pick up the package from the delivery company’s closest facility

 Ask the shipper to require a signature confirmation for delivery

 Give the delivery company instructions where packages can be left out of sight from the road

Middletown fire quickly brought under control

By KAYLA J. MARSH
Staff Writer

MIDDLETOWN — The cause of a house fire that broke out in the North Middletown section of the township is currently under investigation by the Middletown Township Fire Prevention office, according to authorities.

At approximately 11:41 a.m. Dec. 19, the Middletown Township Fire Department was dispatched to a call of smoke at 171 Route 36, in the North Middletown area of the township, according to Dennis W. Fowler, public information officer for the department.

Upon arrival, firefighters encountered a heavy volume of smoke and fire emanating from a building’s second-floor bedroom.

According to Fowler, firefighters quickly ensured that all residents safely exited the structure and proceed to extinguish the fire.

Firefighters contained the blaze to the second floor bedroom, using Thermal Imaging Cameras and used a series of fans to ventilate the smoke from the structure, Fowler said. There was heavy smoke and minor water damage to other areas of the structure, according to Fowler.

Deputy Chief John Gorsegner declared the fire under control by noon and responding units cleared the scene by approximately 2:30 p.m.

Approximately 60 firefighters from the Belford Engine, Belford Independent, East Keansburg and Port Monmouth Fire Companies responded to the scene.

Also assisting at the scene were the Middletown Township Fire Department’s Air Support Unit and the Fairview First Aid Squad stood by during the incident.

According to Fowler, no injuries were reported during the incident.

Laura Steinmetz, chief communications officer for the Jersey Coast Chapter of the American Red Cross, said assistance was quickly given to those affected by the blaze.

“American Red Cross responded to a request for assistance on Dec. 19 at 171 Highway 36 in Middletown, Monmouth County,” she said. “Red Cross Disaster Volunteers met with one adult female who was displaced from her home and was provided care, comfort and emergency assistance including food, clothing and temporary lodging.”

Youths may enter poster contest

New Jersey’s soil conservation districts are now accepting entries in a poster contest designed to raise awareness of natural resources and related issues among young people. The theme for this year’s poster is “We All Need Trees,” according to a press release.

Students may compete in the following categories: Grades 2-3, Grades 4-6, Grades 7-9 and Grades 10-12. The winner in each category will receive $200. The secondplace finisher in each category will receive $100 and the third-place finisher in each category will receive $50.

The winners will be entered in the National Association of Conservation Districts poster contest.

The competition is sponsored by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, New Jersey Association of Conservation Districts and the state’s 15 soil conservation districts, which work to conserve and manage soil and water resources in the state, according to the press release.

To find the local soil conservation district, go to www.nj.gov/agriculture/divisions/ anr/nrc/conservdistricts.html. All entries must be submitted through the local district.

For more information and the entry form, visit www.nj.gov/agriculture/divisions/ anr/pdf/conservationpostercontest.pdf

Soaring above the competition

 STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR Brookdale Community College’s Mason Jones (23) puts up a shot over the outstretched arm of Ocean County College defender Jared Rankins during the Jersey Blues’ Dec. 10 home game at Collins Arena in Lincroft. Brookdale won the contest, 71-69.

Decline in horseshoe crabs concerns Bayshore council

By MICHAEL NUNES
Staff Writer

This year has seen a sharp decrease in horseshoe crabs monitored at five area beaches, according to Joseph Reynolds of the Bayshore Regional Watershed Council.

“We found out that the horseshoe crab population is declining, and primarily female crabs are declining,” said Reynolds, who is the co-chair of the council.

According to a report by the council, only 828 horseshoe crabs were monitored in 2015, the lowest in the group’s seven years of monitoring. Over the past seven years, the group had averaged 1,788 crabs a year.

“A lot of it has to do with the weather, we really got slammed hard with it this year, but also a big part of it is they’re taking a lot of crabs out. New York State still has horseshoe crab harvesting going on … and it’s impacting our monitoring efforts here in Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay,” said Reynolds, who estimates that New York took out over 200,000 crabs this year.

According to data recorded by the council, for every female crab the council monitored, there were about 20 males. According to Reynolds, female crabs are sought after in New York as bait due to the fact they tend to be bigger than males and their eggs can also serve as bait for eels.

The council, along with volunteers, monitors the horseshoe crabs at five area beaches.

Those beaches are Plum Island at Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area, Many Mind Creek in the Borough of Atlantic Highlands, Leonardo Beach in Middletown Township, Conaskonk Point in the Borough of Union Beach and Cliffwood Beach in Aberdeen Township.

The council and its volunteers count and tag the crabs twice in May and twice in June. The dates correspond with the full and new moon, which is the height of spawning for the crabs.

Horseshoe crabs are vital to the shore’s ecosystem, and the news that there are fewer females could prove harmful.

“Horseshoe crabs are important because they provide food. Their eggs are very fatty and nutritious, so they provide food for migratory shore birds that come all the way from South America. [They] stop here to feed on those fatty eggs and get enough energy to continue up to the Arctic and start the next generation of shorebirds,” he said.

“If we lose those horseshoe crab eggs, we not only lose the horseshoe crabs but we lose shorebirds, which have been doing the same thing for thousands and thousands of years,” he continued.

The blood of the horseshoe crab is also prized in medical research to test vaccines.

“Anything that gets into your body has to get tested for contamination. That used to get tested on rabbits that would die in the process. Now it’s tested on horseshoe crab blood,” said Reynolds, who added that the crabs get their blood drained and most survive the process.

Reynolds believes education can help reverse the trend.

“We need to educate people about horseshoe crabs, on both sides of the bay, because a lot of people don’t know how important these crabs are,” he said.

For Reynolds, there is a danger that the crabs could go extinct.

“Here’s a species that has been around 350 to 400 million years and they’re in danger of being lost,” he said, noting that horseshoe crabs are already in danger in the Pacific due to overdevelopment.

Contact Michael Nunes at mnunes@gmnews.com.

Tax appeals may be costly

By KENNY WALTER
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 https://secure.njappealonline.com/prodappeals/ login.aspx.

Middlesex County taxpayers may download the application at http://www.co.middlesex.nj.us/Government/Departments/ 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.

Clients have found caring touch for 30 years

By JENNIFER ORTIZ
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.