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Higg-A-Rella, Inc. v. County of Essex

Decided: September 23, 1994.

HIGG-A-RELLA, INC., T/A STATE INFORMATION SERVICE, BLAU APPRAISAL COMPANY, AND ROBERT D. BLAU, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
COUNTY OF ESSEX, A POLITICAL SUBDIVISION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF ESSEX COUNTY COLLEGE, THE ESSEX COUNTY BOARD OF TAXATION, AND THE MAYORS, COUNCILS, AND ASSESSORS OF THE FOLLOWING ESSEX COUNTY MUNICIPALITIES, TOWNSHIP OF BELLEVILLE, TOWNSHIP OF BLOOMFIELD, TOWNSHIP OF CALDWELL, TOWNSHIP OF CEDAR GROVE, CITY OF EAST ORANGE, TOWNSHIP OF ESSEX FELLS, TOWNSHIP OF FAIRFIELD, TOWNSHIP OF GLEN RIDGE, TOWNSHIP OF IRVINGTON, TOWNSHIP OF LIVINGSTON, TOWNSHIP OF MAPLEWOOD, TOWNSHIP OF MILLBURN, TOWNSHIP OF MONTCLAIR, CITY OF NEWARK, TOWNSHIP OF NORTH CALDWELL, CITY OF ORANGE, TOWNSHIP OF ROSELAND, TOWNSHIP OF SOUTH ORANGE VILLAGE, TOWNSHIP OF VERONA, TOWNSHIP OF WEST CALDWELL, TOWNSHIP OF WEST ORANGE, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Essex County, whose decision is reported at 265 N.J. Super. 616 (Law Div. 1993).

Before Judges J.h. Coleman, Muir, Jr. and Levy.

Levy

The opinion of the court was delivered by LEVY, J.S.C. (temporarily assigned)

Relying on the public records doctrine, plaintiffs sought a computer readable copy of the Essex County property tax assessment lists from the Essex County Board of Taxation. The board agreed to provide a copy of the official lists on paper but refused plaintiffs' demand for an electronic copy. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial Judge ruled for defendants. On appeal, we reverse and hold plaintiffs are entitled to a copy made

on magnetic tape, upon payment of a reasonable fee, because the electronic records are public records under the common law.

The statutory scheme of N.J.S.A. 54:4-23 et seq. requires all real property be assessed for taxation and specifies the method for making and maintaining the assessment records. Each year municipal assessment lists must be filed with the county board of taxation "properly made up in such manner and form required by the Director of the Division of Taxation," to be reviewed and revised by the county board in its official capacity. N.J.S.A. 54:4-35. In Essex County, all the municipal tax assessors use electronic data processing (computers) to create, modify and maintain the tax assessment lists required by various statutes, as do most assessors throughout the state.

The New Jersey Property Tax System MOD IV is a data processing program developed by the Division of Taxation, prescribing the format municipal assessors are to use for computerized record keeping. Even private appraisal firms engaged for revaluations are required to use the MOD IV format if they contract to provide a magnetic tape.

In the event a magnetic tape containing the new values is provided by the firm, said tape will be in a format consistent with the New Jersey Property Tax System MOD IV so that entry of the data can be made directly into the taxing district's Master File.

[N.J.A.C. 18:12-4.11(c).]

The computerized records of tax assessments in Essex County comply with these regulations and are kept in accordance with the MOD IV system. Using these records, the county board and each municipality can produce the printed tax lists required by N.J.S.A. 54:4-35.

Plaintiffs, State Information Systems and Blau Appraisal Company, maintain their own databases of municipal assessment lists from several counties, and they ...


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