With megaphones and poster-board signs, about 40 Camden residents protested Tuesday outside City Hall, denouncing a property revaluation that has led to an additional tax burden for them.
Several said that for various reasons they did not have adequate opportunity to appeal the reassessments, and a city official hinted that their complaint might be legitimate. The company charged with the reassessment took too long to finish the work, the official said, leaving less time for appeals.
"How can property taxes go up when schools are bad, there is trash everywhere, there is crime everywhere?" asked a protest organizer, Angel Cordero. A former mayoral candidate, he is not a property owner but fears his landlord will bump up the rent for his Cramer Hill home.
Another organizer, Mary Cortes, a Cramer Hill homeowner and independent City Council candidate whose tax bill stayed about the same, passed around a petition asking the city to conduct a fresh property reassessment.
The reassessment, the first in 18 years, was completed in February by Tyler Technologies Inc., a Texas company with offices in Pennsauken. But it was only in the last month that residents in some sections of the city felt the full effect of the revaluation, coupled with a significant property-tax increase.
The problem is, the books closed in May and people will have to wait until January to appeal. The second catch: Appeals are granted only if tax payments are up to date, a hardship for many of those who held signs outside City Hall on Tuesday.
Letters were sent out in January stating the reassessed property values. But some of the protesters said they did not receive the notice. Others said they did not know what the letter meant, either because of a language barrier or because of the legal jargon.
"I maybe ignored the letter because I can't read English," Carmen Vargas, 78, said in Spanish. The value of her Vine Street house in North Camden, where she has lived for 40 years, went from $8,700 to $89,600 and her third-quarter tax bill, which was due Aug. 1, is $999.
She says she receives $431 a month in Social Security and her husband gets $1,500.
Cortes said the group, which has held similar weekly protests twice before, intended to continue them.
The city paid Tyler Technologies $3.5 million to complete the full revaluation of Camden's 32,000 commercial and residential properties at 100 percent of market value. The revaluation resulted in the city's total ratable base more than doubling, from $825 million to $1.75 billion.
Bill Holscher, owner of the century-old Crescent Bottling Co. in Cramer Hill, stopped by the rally on his way to the city tax office to try to establish a payment plan.
"I don't have the money to pay the taxes," he said, adding that business was tough and that he had to start operating the liquor store on Sundays to try to make enough revenue to pay the bills.
"We are looking into viable options that can help ease the burden," said city spokesman Robert Corrales.
The new tax burden stems in part from a 9.8 percent municipal tax increase and from an increase in the county levy of around twice that much.
Property owners had until Feb. 10 to appeal directly to Tyler Technologies. After that, they had until May 1 to appeal to the Camden County Board of Taxation.
Paul Miller, project supervisor for Tyler, said the appeal process directly through his company usually took 10 days but because the response was so low, he kept taking calls for an additional week. Once the books closed, he said, it was statutory for appeals to go to the board of taxation.
"We could have finished sooner, but we gave people as much time, even more time," Miller said. He denied the assertion by the city official, who spoke anonymously, that there was a delay in completing the work.
Eight hundred appeals were filed - including just 38 by homeowners. Only 125 filers won their appeals, according to city officials.
The total number of appeals was much lower than expected, Miller and city officials said. "I hired four temps to answer calls then went down to two, then one, right away," Miller said of the low call volume.