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Hackensack City v. Bergen County

February 9, 2009


On appeal from the Tax Court of New Jersey, Docket Nos. 012823-1994; 007268-1996; 007269-1996; 005706-1997; and 000680-1998.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lihotz, J.A.D.



Argued December 17, 2008

Before Judges Parrillo, Lihotz, & Messano.

The Tax Court consolidated several tax appeals, as they all related to the same realty, the Arnold Constable Building (the property), 355 Main Street, Hackensack, identified as Block 407, Lot 34 on the Hackensack City tax map. Bergen County (County) owns the property. In 1994, the City of Hackensack (City) removed the property from the rolls of exempted properties and assessed real estate taxes based on the property's value. On September 14, 1994, the Bergen County Board of Taxation (Board) concluded the property was exempt from real estate taxation based upon its governmental use.*fn1 The City appealed that determination to the Tax Court (Docket No. 01283-94).

Notwithstanding the Board's decision, the City continued to assess the property and send tax bills to the County. The City maintained the property was not used for governmental purposes and was, therefore, not tax exempt. Assessments were issued for 1995 and 1996. On May 20, 1996, the County filed tax appeals from these assessments. The Board dismissed the County's actions as untimely, and the County thereafter appealed to the Tax Court (Docket Nos. 007268-1996 and 007269-1996).

The County also appealed the assessment issued in 1997. The Board concluded the property was exempt from taxation, and the City appealed (Docket No. 005706-1997). The County filed a direct appeal to the Tax Court on the 1998 assessment (Docket No. 00680-1998).

All five matters were consolidated before the Tax Court. The City moved for summary judgment on Docket Nos. 007268-1996 and 007269-1996 because the County's tax appeals for 1995 and 1996 were filed out of time. In an oral determination on January 23, 1998, the Tax Court judge granted summary judgment. The final order was held pending determination of the assessments for the other challenged tax years.

The remaining assessments were the subject of a bench trial held on December 11, 1998 and May 24, 1999. The Tax Court reserved decision and ultimately rendered an oral opinion on July 3, 2007. On the assessments for 1994 and 1997, the Tax Court affirmed the Board's determinations exempting the County's property from taxation and vacated the assessment issued for 1998. On August 17, 2007, final judgments were entered memorializing the Tax Court's decisions on each matter.

The County appealed the dismissal of its appeals for 1995 and 1996 (A-0929-07), and the City appealed the Tax Court's determinations regarding 1994, 1997 and 1998 (A-0507-07, A-0511-07, and A-0512-07). We consolidated the four appeals and review the issues presented by all parties in this opinion.

Following our consideration of the parties' arguments presented on appeal, and in light of the record and the applicable law, we affirm the five Tax Court orders dated August 17, 2007. We do not decide the merits of the County's request to apply the Freeze Act, N.J.S.A. 54:51A-8, as it is not properly before this court. Nieder v. Royal Indem. Ins. Co., 62 N.J. 229, 234 (1973). The County's motion for imposition of the Freeze Act must be presented to the Tax Court.

The facts regarding the County's historic use of the building are undisputed. When the County originally purchased the two-story property in May 1975, it was used as the County's principal administrative office and the basement was used for storage. In 1988, the County's offices relocated to 21 Court Plaza South. The County continued to use the property as a storage facility for surplus county equipment and furniture, records and files, and to store food for distribution by nonprofit agencies. In 1989, the City attempted to remove the property from the list of those properties exempt from taxation and issued an assessment. The County successfully defended its public purpose use and the property's exempt status was restored.

In the 1990s, the property functioned as a warehouse for county equipment and furnishings. The parking lot was used by various civic and non-profit organizations. At times, the Bergen County Prosecutor's task force used some of the space. Also, the County stored forfeited vehicles on the parking lot and held an annual auction selling cars and unneeded personalty.

A January 1992 Capital Planning Task Force, authorized by the County Freeholders, authored a report that concluded "there is no County application for which the use of this property is either necessary or superior" and recommended the County sell the property "if a sufficiently attractive offer [wa]s obtained." In 1993, the County engaged a real estate broker to sell the property. In an effort to increase the property's marketability, the County began removing some of the items placed in storage. On December 6, 1995, the County Board of Chosen Freeholders committed to dispose of the property and adopted a resolution to sell the property "by public auction to the highest bidder." The auction bids received on February 13, 1996 were lower than expected and rejected by the County.

In 1996, the County's lease negotiations for 21 Court Plaza South stalled and the County commenced preparation to return to the property's office space. The move was averted when the Court Plaza lease was extended. At this time, the Bergen County Community College (BCCC) commenced utilization of the property's parking ...

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