The opinion of the court was delivered by: Axelrad
This is a local property tax matter involving appeals by Campbell Soup Company ("taxpayer"), seeking reduction of tax assessments on land and improvements which comprise its world headquarters complex in the City of Camden ("city") for the 1993 and 1994 tax years. City filed a counterclaim seeking to increase the 1994 assessments and also asserts it is entitled to an increase in the 1993 assessments. Neither 1993 nor 1994 is a revaluation year.
In an oral application made at the close of a lengthy trial, taxpayer's counsel asked the court to strike all testimony and evidence submitted by the city's expert in support of its counterclaim. At the request of both counsel, the court reserved its decision pending the submission of written briefs. Taxpayer's motion was based, in part, on city council's failure to adopt a resolution authorizing the filing of a counterclaim in the 1994 appeal. Subsequent to the motion, city council adopted a resolution authorizing the prosecution of the counterclaim. Taxpayer concedes the case law permits city to retroactively ratify the prosecution of counterclaims. Atlantic City v. Atlantic Deauville, Inc., 5 N.J. Tax 459 (Tax Ct. 1983).
Taxpayer further argued that this court lacks jurisdiction to increase the 1993 and 1994 assessments. Taxpayer bases its assertion upon its contention that city's 1994 counterclaim is time barred and no counterclaim was filed by the city with regard to the 1993 assessment. Taxpayer concludes that absent a counterclaim or the city alleging an error in the assessment methodology, this court is precluded from raising the subject assessments. Consequently, taxpayer posits that all testimony and evidence submitted by the city's expert attempting to establish higher valuation and increased assessment of the subject property for both tax years should be stricken by the Court.
City suggests that taxpayer's failure to raise the issue until the close of trial constitutes a waiver of its right to object to the timeliness of city's counterclaim. Jurisdictional challenges such as taxpayer's are not waivable and may be raised at any time. State v. Osborn, 32 N.J. 117 (1960). As such, the court must consider the substantive issues raised in taxpayer's motion and determine whether it is legally authorized to consider the testimony and evidence in support of city's request to raise the subject assessments.
Taxpayer initiated this litigation by filing a petition of appeal with the Camden County Board of Taxation ("county board") on March 26, 1993. City did not file a cross-petition to the county board. A hearing was conducted on August 25, 1993. On August 27, 1993 the county board entered judgment deleting the value of certain improvements that had been removed from two lots, but otherwise affirming the original assessments on the subject property. Memorandum of Judgment was mailed out on August 30, 1993. Taxpayer filed an appeal to the Tax Court on September 30, 1993, and pursuant to a Consent Order permitting the filing out of time, city filed its answer on February 10, 1994. No counterclaim was filed by city for the tax year 1993.
For purposes of trial, the appeal filed for the tax year 1994 was consolidated with the 1993 appeal. Once again, taxpayer initiated its appeal by filing a petition to the county board on March 30, 1994. As in 1993, city did not file a cross-petition to the county board. In view of the pending 1993 Tax Court case, the county board declined to conduct a hearing and entered judgments affirming the assessments on July 1, 1994. Memoranda were mailed on July 15, 1994. On August 12, 1994, taxpayer filed its appeal of the judgments. On August 19, 1994, city filed an answer and counterclaim, seeking an increase in the amount of the assessments for 1994.
Taxpayer argues the city is precluded from filing a counterclaim in the Tax Court due to its failure to assert an affirmative claim for relief in the initial appeal of the 1994 assessment to the county board. It contends the deadline for filing the city's counterclaim was April 19, 1994, 20 days after the filing and service of its petition of appeal to the county board, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:3-21. I find no merit in taxpayer's position. Taxpayer's reliance upon this statute is misplaced; neither law nor logic supports such an interpretation. *fn1
N.J.S.A. 54:3-21 provides that:
A taxpayer . . . or a taxing district . . . may on or before April 1 appeal to the County Board of Taxation by filing with it a petition of appeal; provided, however, that any such taxpayer or taxing district may on or before April 1 file a complaint directly with the Tax Court, if the assessed valuation of the property subject to the appeal exceeds $750,000 . . .
If a petition of appeal or a complaint is filed during the 19 days next preceding April 1 a taxpayer or taxing district shall have 20 days from the date of service of the petition or complaint to file a cross-petition of appeal with the County Board of Taxation or a counterclaim with the Clerk of the Tax Court, as appropriate.
It is well settled law that both appealing taxpayers and taxing districts must strictly adhere to statutory deadlines and failure to file a timely counterclaim is a fatal jurisdictional defect. F.M.C. Stores Co. v. Borough of Morris Plains, 100 N.J. 418 (1985). It is undisputed that N.J.S.A. 54:3-21 requires appeals to the county board and direct appeals to the Tax Court to be filed by April 1, and any cross-petition or counterclaim to be filed within 20 days of same. This statute, however, applies only to appeals to the county board and direct appeals to the Tax Court. N.J.S.A. 54:51A-1 is the appropriate statute to apply when dealing with appeals from county board judgments. Bllum Limited Partnership v. Bloomfield Township, N.J. Super (App. Div. 1996), aff'g 15 N.J. Tax. 409 (Tax 1995).
In property tax cases the Legislature has provided for different procedures for direct appeals and appeals to the Tax Court from county board judgments. For example, in a direct appeal there is no jurisdictional pre-requisite that outstanding property taxes be paid prior to filing; taxpayer's obligation is not crystallized until the issue is raised by the municipality. Schneider v. City of East Orange, 196 N.J. Super. 587 (App. Div. 1984), aff'd per curiam, 103 N.J. 115 (1986), certif. denied, 479 U.S. 824 (1986); N.J.S.A. 54:3-27. On the other hand, failure to pay taxes by the final day statutorily allowed for the filing of appeals from county board judgments to the Tax Court is a jurisdictional defect. N.J.S.A. 54:51A-1(b); J.L. Muscarelle, Inc. v. Saddle Brook Tp., 15 N.J. Tax 164 (App. Div. 1994).
The applicable statute, N.J.S.A. 54:51A-1, directs parties who wish to appeal a county board judgment to do so by filing "pursuant to rules of court." As such, the court rules are the appropriate method for determining the timeliness of the city's 1994 counterclaim. R. 8:4-3 provides that counterclaims ("pleadings other than the complaint") in the Tax Court must be timely filed within 35 days after service of the complaint in accordance with R. 4:6-1.
Nowhere in the statute or court rule does it state that filing an affirmative claim for relief at the county board level is a prerequisite to asserting a counterclaim in an appeal of that board's judgment to the Tax Court. In construing a statute, the court must first consider its plain language. Cumberland Holding Co. v. Vineland, 11 N.J. Tax 457, 462 (Tax 1991) (citing Kimmelman v. Henkels & McCoy, Inc., 108 N.J. 123, 128 (1987)). Where the words of a statute are clear and their meaning and ...