Grocery stores expand services

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 PHOTOGRAPHER 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 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.”

 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 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 partyplanning 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.”

Package theft a concern

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 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 “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

Retired Edison police officer indicted on theft charges

EDISON — A grand jury in Middlesex County has indicted a retired Edison police captain on charges of illegally using sick leave to collect about $38,000 from the township while working at another job.

Natale A. Fresco, 60, of Edison was charged with two counts of second-degree official misconduct, one count of third-degree theft and one count of third-degree theft by deception, according to a statement prepared by Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew C. Carey.

The indictment was handed up in New Brunswick following a presentation to the grand jury by Middlesex County Assistant Prosecutor Christine D’Elia on Dec. 18.

The charges were filed after an investigation determined that Fresco was employed as security director at the Menlo Park Mall between July 15 and Sept. 30 and collected sick pay from the township during that time.

The investigation by Detective Nicholas Chiorello of the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office determined that Fresco, known as “Andy,” collected about $38,000 before retiring on Oct. 1, Carey said.

Fresco, who worked as a police officer for 36 years, earned $189,000 annually from the township and was being paid $65,000 per year as the mall security director, according to Carey.

Anyone with information is asked to call Chiorello at 732-745-3300.

Edison nabs teens in car burglaries

Staff Writer

EDISON — Edison police arrested three teenagers after a series of vehicle break-ins last week.

Trimick Trevell Kates, 18, and two juveniles, ages 17 and 16, were charged with larceny and forcible entry to vehicles, according to Police Sgt. Robert Dudash.

Police were dispatched to the area of Timber Oaks and Lily roads and Rolling Brook Drive, all located off Tingley Lane and Inman Avenue in the northern section of Edison, for reports of vehicle break-ins around 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 17.

Police Officers Wilfedo Brown, Joseph Chonka, Nicole Errico and Robert Ellmyer Jr. arrested the three after searching the neighborhood, and after several of the suspects led Brown on a foot chase through a wooded area behind Rolling Brook Drive, police said.

Police recovered about $1,700 worth of store gift cards, cell phones, coins, and a oneounce gold bar worth about $1,250 that were reported stolen from vehicles in the vicinity, police said.

Kates was released on his own recognizance and the two juveniles were released into the custody of relatives or guardians, police said.

Spicuzzo released from prison after serving two of nine-year sentence

Staff Writer

Former Middlesex County Sheriff Joseph Spicuzzo has been released from jail.

Spicuzzo was sentenced in 2013 to nine years in prison for running a jobs-for-cash scheme that yielded him approximately $112,000 in bribes from those seeking positions or promotions in the sheriff’s department, Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman said at the time.

He was released from the Central Reception and Assignment Facility (CRAF) in Trenton on Dec. 17, according to a receptionist at the CRAF. Spicuzzo had to serve at least two years before becoming eligible for parole. He faced numerous charges in the scheme, but entered into a deal in which he pleaded guilty to only one of them.

The 70-year-old Helmetta resident was sentenced in state Superior Court in Monmouth County on Sept. 20, 2013, after pleading guilty to a charge of accepting $25,000 in exchange for a job in his office.

He was the Middlesex County sheriff for three decades, from 1980 until his 2010 retirement, and was chairman of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization for 16 years.

Former Middlesex County Sheriff’s Investigator Darrin P. DiBiasi, 47, of Monmouth Junction, and former Middlesex County Sheriff’s Officer Paul A. Lucarelli, 50, of South River, also submitted guilty pleas. The two men admitted to a third-degree charge of conspiracy to make illegal gifts to a public servant.

DiBiasi was sentenced on Sept. 20, 2013, to 364 days in jail, five years probation, 200 hours community service and a $5,000 fine.

Lucarelli was sentenced to three years probation, fined $2,500 and ordered to perform 500 hours of community service during his sentencing on Oct. 4, 2013.

Contact Jennifer Amato at

Woodbridge Police Dept. appoints five new police officers to ranks

 Woodbridge Police Department announces appointment of five to officers to patrol ranks. (l-r) Police Officer Nicholas James Errico: Police Officer Christopher Rendeiro Esteves: Police Officer Joseph William Russyk: Police Officer Michael Joseph Hart: Police Officer Matthew Edward Dougherty. Woodbridge Police Department announces appointment of five to officers to patrol ranks. (l-r) Police Officer Nicholas James Errico: Police Officer Christopher Rendeiro Esteves: Police Officer Joseph William Russyk: Police Officer Michael Joseph Hart: Police Officer Matthew Edward Dougherty. Mayor John E. McCormac has announced the appointment of five new police officers to the ranks of the Woodbridge Township Police Department (WPD). The officers completed the state-mandated six-month police training program at the Monmouth County Police Training Academy and will immediately take up patrol assignments on the streets of Woodbridge Township. The appointments were approved after the recruits successfully completed an extensive testing and eligibility process overseen by the New Jersey Department of Personnel, New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, and the Woodbridge Police Department.

“I am pleased to announce the appointment of five new police officers to the ranks of the Woodbridge Township Police Department,” Mayor McCormac said. “The public safety mission of the Woodbridge Police Department is our most important priority. As a result of our commitment to public safety, combined with the increased assignment of uniformed officers to street patrol, the Woodbridge Police Department continues to maintain police ranks at maximum staffing levels with 195 enlisted officers at work effectively protecting public safety.”

Joining Mayor McCormac to announce the appointment of the new police officers were Police Director Robert Hubner, Deputy Police Director Joseph Nisky, Captain Roy Hoppock, Municipal Clerk John Mitch, Councilwomen Debbie Meehan and Lizbeth DeJesus, Councilman Cory Spillar, members of the WPD command staff and ranking officers, patrol officers, family and friends.

The five WPD patrol officers taking the Oath of Office are:

Police Officer Nicholas James Errico: Officer Errico, 25, resides in Woodbridge Proper. Officer Errico is a 2008 graduate of Edison High School and a 2012 graduate of York College of Pennsylvania, having earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a minor in public relations. Officer Errico previously worked for Universal Protection Services where he rose from the rank of security guard to become the assistant director of security at the Menlo Park Mall. Officer Errico graduated from the Monmouth County Police Training Academy upon completion of the requisite sixmonth New Jersey Police Training Commission police officer training course. Officer Errico is assigned to the Radio Patrol Division.

Police Officer Christopher Rendeiro Esteves: Officer Esteves, 28, resides in the Avenel section of Woodbridge Township. Officer Esteves attended both Seton Hall and Kean Universities, earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 2009. Officer Esteves comes to the Woodbridge Police Department from the New Jersey Department of Corrections, where he was employed as a senior corrections officer at East Jersey State Prison. Officer Esteves previously attended the New Jersey Department Corrections Officer Training Academy in Sea Girt and graduated from the Monmouth County Police Training Academy upon completion of the requisite six-month New Jersey Police Training Commission police officer training course. Officer Esteves is assigned to the Radio Patrol Division.

Police Officer Joseph William Russyk: Officer Russyk, 28, is a life-long resident of the Iselin section of Woodbridge Township. Officer Russyk is a 2005 graduate of John F. Kennedy High School and a 2009 graduate of Rutgers University with bachelor’s degrees in both political science and economics. Officer Russyk previously worked at Nordstrom where he started as a stock associate and rose to the position of assistant logistics manager. Officer Russyk graduated from the Monmouth County Police Training Academy upon completion of the requisite six-month New Jersey Police Training Commission police officer training course. Officer Russyk is assigned to the Radio Patrol Division.

Police Officer Michael Joseph Hart: Officer Hart, 24, is a lifelong resident of the Iselin section of Woodbridge Township. Officer Hart is a 2009 graduate of John F. Kennedy High School and a 2013 graduate of Monmouth University with a bachelor’s degree in history and a minor in legal studies. While in school, Officer Hart completed an internship with the American Red Cross. Officer Hart comes to the WPD from Kaztronix, a Woodbridge Township-based staffing company where he worked as a recruiter. Officer Hart graduated from the Monmouth County Police Training Academy upon completion of the requisite sixmonth New Jersey Police Training Commission police officer training course. Officer Hart is assigned to the Radio Patrol Division.

Police Officer Matthew Edward Dougherty: Officer Dougherty, 23, is a lifelong resident of the Colonia section of Woodbridge Township. Officer Dougherty is a 2010 graduate of Colonia High School. Officer Dougherty comes to the WPD from the Springfield Township Police Department where he was employed as a police officer. Officer Dougherty previously attended the John H. Stamler Police Academy and completed the requisite six-month New Jersey Police Training Commission police officer training course. Officer Dougherty will assume patrol responsibilities assigned to the Radio Patrol Division.

Sixth Annual Holiday House Decorating Contest scheduled

The Recreation Department is accepting applications through Dec. 18 for the Edison 6th Annual Holiday House Decorating Contest. Houses will be judged on originality and creativity on Dec. 21-22. Edison’s top three selected houses will win bragging rights and gift cards to area restaurants. Applications can be picked up from and returned to the Stelton Community Center, 328 Plainfield Ave.; the Minnie B. Veal Community Center, 1070 Grove Ave.; or the Recreation Office at 100 Municipal Blvd. Applications may also be downloaded from under the Township newsletter “Entertaining Edison” located in the “Community Board.” For more information, the Recreation Office can be contacted daily at 732-248-7312.

Vahalla lauded for his service to Metuchen

Staff Writer

 Thomas Vahalla Thomas Vahalla Metuchen Mayor Thomas Vahalla can add Borough Council meetings to the list of venues that bring tears to his eyes.

“It’s kind of overwhelming up here tonight,” he said as he addressed the crowd that honored his 23 years of service — mayor since 2007 after serving as councilman since 1993 — to the community at a council meeting on Dec. 7. Vahalla, who opted not to run for re-election in November after the borough’s Democratic organization lent its support to former Councilman Peter Cammarano, said there were only two places that he would cry — weddings and state championships.

However, the recognition by state, county and borough officials brought tears to his eyes.

“I always worked hard caring about all the people in Metuchen trying to meet up with the expectations and goals established,” said Vahalla, thanking everyone for their kind words.

Vahalla, an avid Boston Red Sox and Notre Dame football fan, received a Red Sox baseball cap from Len Roseman, chairman of the Parking Authority and a Notre Dame signed football from former councilman Richard Dyas.

Police Chief David Irizarry presented Vahalla with a plaque. He said Vahalla’s dedication to public safety — police, fire and emergency medical services — was second to none.

“We appreciate that,” he said. “[Vahalla] really has a connection to the community and cares about the people in the community.”

Irizarry said Vahalla means it when he says, “Let me know if there is something that I can do.”

Metuchen Volunteer Fire Chief Robert Donnan presented Vahalla with an honorary white fire chief’s helmet.

“Like Chief Irizarry said, every fire call we go on, he was there; if a firefighter was hurt, he would go to the hospital and be there,” he said.

Donnan, who noted that he met Vahalla when he was a student at Metuchen High School in 1983, said Vahalla was instrumental in the move forward for a new firehouse.

A task force is weighing options for a site on which to build a replacement for the borough’s blighted firehouse.

Metuchen High School Principal Bruce Peragallo and John Cathcart, director of athletics, presented Vahalla, who was an educator for 41 years in the Metuchen School District, with a Metuchen High School jacket and shirt.

“Tom cared,” Peragallo said. “He has done nothing but positive.”

State Sen. Peter Barnes III (D-Middlesex), Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin (DMiddlesex), Middlesex County Freeholder Charles Tomaro and Borough Councilwoman Dorothy Rasmussen presented Vahalla with proclamations.

“Metuchen is a unique town and as mayor [you were] faced with unique challenges,” said Barnes.

“You are a person who really cares for the town and cares about the citizens,” he said.

Tomaro said Vahalla has been the champion for the Metuchen community with the push for a new firehouse and Middlesex County Greenway, which runs through Edison, Metuchen and Woodbridge.

“Metuchen has really embraced the greenway more so than Edison and Woodbridge,” Tomaro said adding that the most difficult job is the mayoral position. “Everyone wants the mayor … you get that phone call at 3 in the morning.”

Rasmussen read into the official record the council’s proclamation, which outlined Vahalla’s achievements, including boosting the morale of the Metuchen Police Department, streamlining garbage collection, and the ongoing Pearl Street development, which will be home to a Whole Foods.

Former councilwoman Beatrice Moskowitz presented Vahalla’s family with flowers.

Vahalla will lead his last council meeting as mayor on Dec. 21.

Property 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 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.

Nutcracker ‘sweet’

 Donna Barnes plays Mother Gigoné during a dress rehearsal for the Nutcracker at Ms. Doreen’s Fabulous Feet School of Dance studio in Metuchen on Dec. 13. Donna Barnes plays Mother Gigoné during a dress rehearsal for the Nutcracker at Ms. Doreen’s Fabulous Feet School of Dance studio in Metuchen on Dec. 13.
 Victoria Silverman plays the Dew Drop duriing a dress rehearsal for the Nutcracker. Victoria Silverman plays the Dew Drop duriing a dress rehearsal for the Nutcracker.
 Above: The Taffy Clowns watch and learn. Below: Miranda McNab goes through her routine. Above: The Taffy Clowns watch and learn. Below: Miranda McNab goes through her routine.
 Doreen Padilla, owner of Ms. Doreen’s Fabulous Feet School of Dance studio, instructs students during rehearsal.  PHOTOS BY SCOTT FRIEDMAN Doreen Padilla, owner of Ms. Doreen’s Fabulous Feet School of Dance studio, instructs students during rehearsal. PHOTOS BY SCOTT FRIEDMAN

 Taffy Clowns perform a dance during a dress rehearsal for the Nutcracker at the Ms. Doreen’s Fabulous Feet School of Dance studio in Metuchen on Dec. 13. For more photos, see page 3.  SCOTT FRIEDMAN Taffy Clowns perform a dance during a dress rehearsal for the Nutcracker at the Ms. Doreen’s Fabulous Feet School of Dance studio in Metuchen on Dec. 13. For more photos, see page 3. SCOTT FRIEDMAN