The president of Cong. Beth Tikvah/New Milford Jewish Center is wondering why the borough’s tax assessor is trying to take away the building’s property tax exemption. The municipal tax assessor denies this is the case and says she is just doing her job by asking the congregation, New Milford’s only Jewish house of worship, to clarify the building’s ownership and whether the owner is profiting from rent paid by a tenant.
Both hope the matter can be resolved amicably, and soon.
The disconnect appears to center on two issues: first, Beth Tikvah’s agreement earlier this year to sell its building to TorahLinks. The sale is yet to go through, but once it does, Beth Tikvah plans to remain in the building through a lease-back of space. Second, Yeshivas Ohr Yosef, a Jewish high school with an enrollment of about 30 teens, has been occupying the synagogue’s bottom floor six days a week since October 2006.
According to Robert Nesoff, the congregation’s president, Beth Tikvah is still the property owner of record, “taking a contribution for [use of] the space by Yeshivas Ohr Yosef.” The synagogue is not making a profit from this arrangement, Nesoff claimed, and therefore Beth Tikvah’s property tax exemption should remain fully in place. “The whole thing is a contributory pass-through with checks made out to us. They [Yeshivas Ohr Yosef] kick in for a portion of the utilities; it’s a monthly contribution,” he told The Jewish Standard. “The building is used for religious purposes, and that is all. We don’t rent to private or political organizations.”
Moreover, Nesoff contends, because Ohr Yosef is a religious school, its use of the building is in compliance with state statutes for property tax exemptions granted to religious and educational institutions and represents a continuation of Beth Tikvah’s historic use of the property. “There has always been a school in the building,” said Nesoff.
For her part, Maureen Kamen, the tax assessor who has been in the position for a little over two years, said that every three years the borough is required by the state to re-evaluate property tax exemptions for all non-government owned buildings. To comply with these regulations, she conducted an internal audit of every tax-exempt institution in New Milford and sent what are known as “further statements” to them all, requesting supporting documentation to maintain their tax-exempt status. She noted that the last further statements went out in 2006, under the prior tax assessor.
Tax exemptions granted must accurately reflect use of the property; different exemptions are granted for different, albeit legitimate, uses, Kamen explained.
On Oct. 20, 2006, when the financial chair of Beth Tikvah filed an initial application for exemption, he included the information that a Jewish Montessori school was paying $1,700 a month in rent to the congregation, said Kamen. “That raised a red flag whether it’s a private school; they have to document it is not a profit-making school. They could lose the exemption for that portion of the property being rented, if it was a profit-making entity. If it is a full-time school, they are entitled to a different exemption under a different state statute. It is their responsibility to provide the documents so I can make the decision,” she said.
The pending sale of Beth Tikvah’s building also came to her attention, said Kamen, through newspaper accounts she read online (including a story that appeared in the Standard on Jan. 1, 2010). “It raised for me the question of whether the building is being sold. Nesoff said it is not, [but] the problem we have here is, when do they anticipate the sale? The new organization will have to qualify [because the tax exemption is tied to property ownership]. It doesn’t mean the new owner can’t qualify [for an exemption] and lease to them, but it [the new organization] must [first] apply and supply supporting documentation by Oct. 1 for the exemption to be in place for 2011,” Kamen stated, citing Section 54: 4-4.4 as the relevant section of the New Jersey tax code.
In fact, Beth Tikvah is late in meeting the borough’s deadline for documentation required by the further statement, said Kamen. Only recently did she receive an insurance declaration, but that, she indicated, isn’t sufficient to determine the institution’s tax-exempt status for the coming year.
“There must be a timely application on a further statement of Nov. 1 of the pre-tax year, every third year. We should have gotten [Beth Tikvah’s application] in 2009. It’s been an uphill battle to get information. I have worked with many others, Baptist, Catholic, the Elks Lodge. I’m only missing information on one other property and the New Milford Jewish Center,” said Kamen.
But Nesoff believes that Beth Tikvah, unlike other religious institutions in the borough, has been unfairly targeted, a question he raised in a letter he sent Kamen on June 16.
Nesoff also believes that by insisting Beth Tikvah provide proof of its eligibility for tax-exempt status, the tax assessor may be undermining the borough’s religious community.
“My question to her [Kamen] is, there are other religious institutions in town that are blatantly violating laws, for example, one of the churches rents out its parking lot each year for the sale of Christmas trees. The church must need the income, so the town has never gone after them, and why should they? Why shouldn’t we try to save the religious institutions in town?
“In this day and age, most congregations are graying and congregational numbers are falling,” he continued. “Why not bend a little to help instead of trying to put them out of business? All religious institutions provide services in town. For example, we don’t charge rent for meetings for Hadassah and for the Jewish War Veterans. I’m sure all the churches do the same.
“We contribute a lot more than we are taking, not just us, but the entire religious community in New Milford,” he pointed out. “Why this sudden scrutiny of the only Jewish house of worship in town, and why are council members trying to make this a political issue and trying to make political points for themselves?”
At a recent council meeting, said Nesoff, Republicans Ann Subrizi, Keith Bachmann, and Howard Berner asked who owns the building in which Beth Tikvah and Ohr Yosef are housed and, according to Nesoff, “why are kids running around in the street?”
“I don’t want to get the shul involved in politics,” he said, “but there is a question [about their motivation]. These kids wear yarmulkes and tzitzit.”
One neighbor, Nesoff said, has filed complaints about the presence of the school and what she described as unruly behavior by students off school grounds. Nesoff said that the issue was addressed with Ohr Yosef’s principal, and that the principal has taken steps to supervise the youngsters and find alternative space for their free time between classes.
“We’ve shrunk so much. We can’t afford to keep the building going. We’re trying to be a continuing member of the community, trying to service an aging Jewish population and at the same time bring in younger members and trying to be good citizens of New Milford.
“We are a tax-exempt religious institution, and the yeshiva is both a religious and educational institution. It’s very unfair what they’re trying to do to us,” he charged.
Countered Kamen, “I investigate every single property, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, even the Elks [Lodge]. I’m trying to find out what’s going on. I want to assist them to qualify for an exemption and give them proper information and forms to file.”