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Morris-Sussex Area Co. v. Hopatcong Borough

February 21, 1996

MORRIS-SUSSEX AREA CO., BOY SCOUTS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
HOPATCONG BOROUGH, DEFENDANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kuskin

Plaintiff's 1995 local property tax appeal seeking a tax exemption was dismissed by the Sussex County Board of Taxation for nonpayment of 1994 taxes. Defendant has moved to dismiss Plaintiff's Tax Court Complaint on the basis of such non-payment.

Plaintiff is the owner of 100.57 acres of vacant land designated as Block 50002, Lot 6, on the Tax Map of the Borough of Hopatcong. For the tax year 1995, five acres of the land were granted an exemption from local property tax pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.24, which provides:

All real and personal property used for the purposes and in the work of ... the Boy Scouts of America ... shall be exempt from taxation under this chapter if the legal or equitable ownership of such property is in [said association] using said property and the land so exempt does not exceed 5 acres in extent ....

The remaining 95.57 acres were assessed for $130,700. Plaintiff's application to the tax assessor for exemption from taxation for this remaining acreage was rejected, and Plaintiff filed an appeal with the Sussex County Board of Taxation ("County Board"). At the date of filing, local property taxes for the full tax year 1994 were unpaid as were the taxes for the first quarter of the tax year 1995.

On May 8, 1995, the scheduled hearing date for the appeal, Defendant moved before the County Board to dismiss the appeal under N.J.S.A. 54:3-27 on the grounds that 1994 taxes were unpaid. Plaintiff had not sought a tax exemption for 1994. On May 18, 1995 (see N.J.A.C. 18:12A-1.6(e)), the County Board heard and granted Defendant's motion and dismissed the appeal.

Plaintiff filed its Complaint with the Tax Court on June 30, 1995. At the time of such filing, 1994 taxes remained unpaid, and neither the February 1995 nor May 1995 quarterly tax installments were paid. 1994 taxes were paid in full on August 21, 1995.

The limited issue before me is whether the tax payment requirements of N.J.S.A. 54:3-27 are applicable to an appeal seeking an exemption from taxation. If so, Plaintiff's Complaint must be dismissed. Bllum Ltd. Partnership v. Bloomfield Tp., N.J. Tax. (Tax 1995).

There are two separate statutory tax payment requirements applicable to the filing of tax appeals. N.J.S.A. 54:3-27 contains the requirement pertaining to the initial filing of an appeal with a county board of taxation or the Tax Court.

A taxpayer who shall file an appeal from an assessment against him shall pay to the collector of the taxing district no less than the total of all taxes and municipal charges due, up to and including the first quarter of the taxes and municipal charges assessed against him for the current tax year in the manner prescribed in R.S. 54:4-66 [which provides for quarterly installments on February 1, May 1, August 1 and November 1 of each tax year].

N.J.S.A. 54:51A-1(b) contains a separate payment requirement pertaining to appeals from county boards of taxation to the Tax Court.

At the time that a complaint has been filed with the tax court seeking review of judgment of county tax boards, all taxes or any installments thereof then due and payable for the year for which review is sought must have been paid.

If (as here) the basis of an appeal is a claim of exemption from local property taxes, N.J.S.A. 54:51A-3 applies. This statute provides:

Class 3B (Farm Qualified) and Class 15D, E and F (Exempt Property) in appeal where a statutory qualification is the subject of the appeal are exempt from those provisions contained in subsection b. of R.S. 54:51A-1.

The subject land would, under N.J.A.C. 18:12-2.2(r), be Class 15F *fn1 property if it is entitled to an exemption under N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.24.

Based upon the foregoing statutory provisions, the Plaintiff was required, under N.J.S.A. 54:3-27, to have paid 1994 taxes as well as first quarter 1995 taxes (due on February 1, 1995) in order to pursue its appeal before the County Board seeking an exemption for 1995. N.J.S.A. 54:51A-3 expressly exempted Plaintiff from the payment requirements of N.J.S.A. 54:51A-1(b) in connection with Plaintiff's appeal from the County Board to the Tax Court. Neither N.J.S.A. 54:51A-3 nor any other statute contains an express exemption from the payment requirements of N.J.S.A. 54:3-27 in connection with an appeal to a county board of taxation or a direct appeal to the Tax Court. The statutory scheme is, on its surface, clear and supports the County Board's dismissal of Plaintiff's appeal.

Closer examination, however, reveals an anomaly in the statutory scheme resulting from the limited tax payment exemption provided by N.J.S.A. 54:51A-3. Under this statute a taxpayer claiming exemption may pursue an appeal without making payment of the tax installments due for the year of appeal (here the installments due for the first and second quarters of 1995), but under N.J.S.A. 54:3-27 the taxpayer must make payment of the tax installment due for the first quarter of the year of appeal (here the first quarter of 1995) and payment of all municipal charges due for the year of appeal as well as all taxes and municipal charges due for all prior years. The obvious explanations for this anomaly are, upon analysis, unsatisfactory.

The explanation that the limited tax payment exemption in N.J.S.A. 54:51A-3 constitutes a legislative effort to provide an essential tax collection mechanism is unsatisfactory because there are comprehensive provisions for tax collection in N.J.S.A. 54:5-1 to -129, which provisions operate independently of N.J.S.A. 54:3-27 and apply whether or not a tax appeal is filed. See Brinkley v. Western World, Inc. 275 N.J. Super. 605,612 (Ch. Div. 1994). Cf. Town of West Orange v. Block 107, 162 N.J. Super. 314 (App. Div. 1978). The explanation that the limited exemption constitutes a legislative effort to ease the tax payment prerequisites in connection with exemption appeals is unsatisfactory because N.J.S.A. 54:51A-3 excuses payment only of tax installments due for the year of appeal, while N.J.S.A. 54:3-27 requires payment of a potentially much larger amount consisting of all taxes and municipal charges due "up to and including" the date of filing of the initial appeal.

Under these circumstances it is necessary and appropriate to examine the applicable statutes, and their origins, in greater depth. Although it is the court's responsibility to respect and enforce the legislature's will as manifested in the statutory language, Chase Manhattan Bank v. Josephson, 135 N.J. 209, 225 (1994), it is also the court's responsibility to interpret and apply the legislature's enactments in a manner consistent with the statutory intent and purpose and to avoid unreasonable or absurd results. State v. Gill, 47 N.J. 441,444 (1966). In so doing the court may and should consider legislative history and context, State in Interest of M.T.S., 129 N.J. 422, 431 (1992), and the evolution of the particular statute as well as public policy factors, State v. Tischio, 107 N.J. 504, 518 (1987), appeal dismissed, 484 U.S. 1038, 108 S. Ct. 768, 98 L. Ed. 2d 855 (1988).

Canons of statutory interpretation provide limited assistance in this quest for the proper meaning of a statute. There are canons, both in Latin and in English, which will support almost any approach to interpretation which a court wishes to adopt. See generally Karl N. Llewellyn, Remarks on the Theory of Appellate Decision and the Rules or Canons About How Statutes Are To Be Construed, 3 Vand. L. Rev. 395 (1950), which catalogs 28 canons of statutory interpretation and their respective direct opposites. There is, however, agreement in the more recent New Jersey cases that the following very general principles should be applied:

a) the court should attempt to determine the legislative intent in enacting particular legislation, AMN, Inc. v. South Brunswick Tp. Rent Leveling Bd. 93 N.J. 518, 525 (1983);

b) legislation should be interpreted in the context of related statutes, New Jersey Transit Corp. v. Borough of Somerville., 139 N.J. 582, 589 (1995) and

c) the "plain meaning" of a statute does not foreclose further analysis in light of the legislative purpose, the context of the statute and the history of the statute. Chase Manhattan Bank v. Josephson, (supra) , 135 N.J. at 225.

The statutory history relevant to defendant's motion begins with L. 1918, c. 236 ("Chapter 236"), which permitted the filing of appeals of tax assessments with county boards of taxation and provided in Section 703 (the original version of N.J.S.A. 54:3-27) that:

Any taxpayer who shall file an appeal from an assessment against him may pay to the collector of the taxing district such portion of the taxes assessed him as he would be required to ...


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