On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County.
King, Havey and Muir, Jr. The opinion of the court was delivered by Havey, J.A.D.
This appeal involves the interpretation of a tax surcharge provision in a rent leveling ordinance which permits landlords to pass through to tenants tax increases from the "previous year." Plaintiffs contend that "previous year" means the year previous to enactment of the ordinance. They argue that to interpret the term to mean the immediate preceding calendar year would "strip" them of "a substantial monetary vested right" to a tax pass-through for the accrued increases since 1972. We reject the contention and affirm.
In 1973 defendant Township of North Bergen adopted a rent leveling ordinance regulating multi-family residential structures. The ordinance permitted landlords to collect a tax surcharge from tenants as a result of an increase in municipal property taxes, based on the increase in taxes ". . . over the property tax for 1972[.]" The tax surcharge provision was amended in 1982 to provide as follows:
A landlord may seek a tax surcharge from a tenant as a result of an increase in municipal property taxes. . . . The landlord shall divide the increase in the
present property tax for the dwelling over the property tax for 1972 by the number of rooms in the dwelling. . . . [Section 7, emphasis added].
In 1985 the provision was again amended to provide, in applicable part:
The tax surcharge shall not exceed the amount authorized by the following provision: The landlord shall divide the increase in the present property tax for the dwelling over the property tax for the previous year by the number of rooms in the dwelling, to obtain the tax increase per room. [Emphasis added].
Defendant North Bergen Rent Leveling Board (Board) interpreted the phrase "previous year" in the 1985 amendment to mean that landlords were entitled to pass through to tenants only the increase from the immediate preceding calendar year.
Plaintiffs, owners of multi-family units regulated by the ordinance, instituted this action in lieu of prerogative writs challenging the Board's method of calculating the surcharge. They sought judgment declaring that the term "previous year" in the 1985 amendment was intended to refer to the year previous to the enactment of the ordinance, or in the alternative a declaration that the amendment was unconstitutional "as applied". At cross-motions for summary judgment, the Law Division Judge entered judgment in defendants' favor, concluding that the amendment clearly intended to refer to the immediate preceding calendar year. The judge dismissed the constitutional challenge, suggesting that a plenary hearing in a separate action was necessary to address that contention.
We agree with the Law Division judge that the 1984 amendment intended to permit a tax pass-through only for increases from the immediate preceding calendar year. In construing a municipal ordinance, we apply the same rules of construction as are applied to statutes. See AMN, Inc. v. So. Bruns. Tp. Rent Leveling Bd., 93 N.J. 518, 524-525 (1983); Matlack v. Burlington Cy. Bd. of Chosen Freeholders, 194 N.J. Super. 359, 361 (App.Div.), certif. den. 99 N.J. 191 (1984). Courts must refrain from usurping the legislative body when its intent is ...