The government emails sought by a grand jury investigating Monmouth County’s new tax program show that confidential internal communications were shared with a private vendor before it won a major contract, an Asbury Park Press investigation found.
Months before Realty Appraisal Co. won a $560,000 revaluation contract with Ocean Township, a key member in the private company received emails from Monmouth County Tax Administrator Matthew S. Clark about the township’s preparations for the work, according to the government emails obtained by the Press.
The information was passed along in May 2014 by Clark to Neil Rubenstein, a principal in Realty Appraisal Co. in West New York, the emails show, about five months before Ocean put out bids for the costly taxpayer-funded review of all property in the town.
Some emails were forwarded to the company in as little as 30 minutes after Clark received them, the documents showed.
The emails are some of the key documents the grand jury and Monmouth County Prosecutor’s office is seeking with subpoenas they issued this week to the Monmouth County government and at least three municipalities.
The criminal probe comes after a Press investigation in October raised questions about the relationship between Clark, local assessors and five companies – Realty Appraisal, Realty Data Systems, Value Added Systems, GW Municipal Services II and GS Municipal Services.
The 284 pages of emails reveal a relationship between Clark and Rubenstein, whose company in recent years has won nearly nine out of 10 municipal contracts to appraise properties in Monmouth County even before the new Assessment Demonstration Program, or ADP, began.
In the emails, Clark shared with Rubenstein information he had sent to other government officials about the pilot program, contract updates he received from assessors and critiques he gave assessors about their work.
Clark declined an interview, saying he would only respond to the Press if it submitted written questions to him. The Press does not submit questions ahead of interviews. Rubenstein’s attorney declined to comment.
Rubenstein responds: Realty Appraisal didn’t need insider information
Township officials contacted for this story said they never knew their internal communications with Clark – who is overseeing implementation of the ADP - were passed to a potential bidder.
Windfall for tax assessors: Read the original investigation
The 53 towns in Monmouth County are under orders by the county Tax Board to reassess all properties to meet the mandates of the ADP program. The new law is supposed to ensure all properties are valued fairly so there is no longer wide disparities in property tax payments. In order to meet this new mandate, dozens of towns, including Ocean, have hired private revaluation firms to inspect each home.
One competing company said the emails raise questions about the relationships between government and business.
“The playing field is not quite level,” said Ernest Del Guercio, owner of Appraisal Systems Inc., a firm that has done more than 30 percent of most recent revaluation contracts in New Jersey.
Details contained in the emails, released in a public records request to the Press, would not have given a revaluation firm an economic edge to come up with a lower bid price, Del Guercio said. Rather it would have helped a firm know that there was revaluation work available — information Del Guercio claims is hard to find in Monmouth County.
“It would help us know a town is contemplating a revaluation and indicate to them our availability and desire to do the work,” Del Guercio said. ”It would be useful information in planning the amount of work we take.”
Del Guercio’s firm did not bid on Ocean Township’s revaluation, but has submitted proposals in other Monmouth County towns, winning work in the small towns of Manasquan and Lake Como, which have 3,312 and 1050 parcels, respectively. Realty Appraisal was the sole firm to submit a bid in Ocean Township, which has 9,690 parcels.
The Press’ October investigation found questionable relationships between Clark’s father-in-law, municipal assessors and companies winning a majority of the contracts under the ADP pilot project, Rubensteins’ Realty Appraisal and Realty Data Systems, another firm he co-owns with a former tax commissioner who helped set up the program.
Ocean Township – No delays tolerated
On May 14, 2014, at 9:59 a.m., Clark shot off a five-paragraph email to several assessors that boiled down to this: No delays will be tolerated in the Assessment Demonstration Program. Start working now on maps needed for the work.
Assessor Ed Mullane, one of the targets of the missive, emailed Clark updates on the progress for his three towns, Bradley Beach, Lake Como and Ocean Township. Lake Como and Ocean Township were still months away from going out to bid on revaluations contracts ordered under the new pilot program, but Mullane had already started the work on the maps, that showed blocks, lots of each parcel. Such maps are critical for a successful revaluation.
By 11:15 a.m., Clark had forwarded each update from Mullane to Rubenstein of Realty Appraisal Co., the future winner of the Ocean bid.
“Wow,” said Ocean Township Mayor Christopher P. Siciliano when informed of the emails. “Is that something that’s concerning? Yeah, 100 percent. We think we’re putting out RFP’s (request for proposal, a form of a bid request) in good faith.” The bid was also publicly advertised.
Spring Lake Heights – Questions about cost
Two months later, in July 2014, Spring Lake Heights Council members scanned their meeting documents about the upcoming revaluation and had questions for their staff. At issue was approving a contract with Tinton Falls-based Realty Data Systems, a property inspection firm co-owned by Rubenstein’s Realty Appraisal Co.
Was RDS’ proposal the best for the borough? How do the prices compare to other towns? And why is this program being forced upon us? the council members asked each other and the borough staff.
The next afternoon, borough Administrator Jay Delaney typed a one-paragraph email to his assessor, Mitch Elias, explaining the concerns that led the council to table the $50,402 contract proposal.
Delaney’s email made its way to Clark, who sent a lengthy response. He suggested two alternative options: Monmouth County could contract the work to a vendor and bill the town.
“The second option is far more troubling to the taxpayers,” Clark wrote. “(I)f Spring Lake Heights does not begin the ‘5-year, 20% annual internal inspection program’ in 2014, it will be required to implement a complete revaluation before beginning the program.”
Such an order would cost Spring Lake Heights’ taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars more, as a nearby town discovered. Brielle, which has about as many parcels as Spring Lake Heights, spent $159,000 on its revaluation.
The next morning, Clark forwarded the email thread to Neil Rubenstein, a part owner of Realty Data Systems. Rubenstein did not respond by email, the documents showed.
A month later, Spring Lake Heights approved the $50,400 contract with Realty Data Systems.
When asked for this story how he saw the email exchange, Delaney said, “I did not interpret it to mean if the (local) inspection program was not initiated, we would be ordered to do a reval. My recollection was that the county Tax Board could direct the inspections be done with them and we would be billed for them.”
Fair Haven’s inspection issues
The emails released also show Fair Haven officials expressed concerns about the results of Realty Data Systems’ work in 2014. Under the contract, RDS was supposed to inspect about a fifth of the town in the first year, both the interior and exterior. But the company managed to enter only 56 percent of the total homes it was supposed to review that year.
Fair Haven Administrator Theresa Casagrande emailed Clark, Rubenstein, and the two principals in RDS stating that RDS only entered 198 of the 450 homes.
“As such, we will be paying you $4,158.00, without the benefit of the assurance that we have an accurate property record card for these 198 properties.” That is about half of the $9,177 RDS was owed under the contract.
Casagrande told the Press recently that Realty Data Systems has not begun the borough’s 2015 inspections. RDS’ total contract for three years is $27,531.
RDS’ attorney, Josh Bauchner, said the firm did complete 100 percent of the exterior inspections last year and plan to use “helpful suggestions” Casagrande offered regarding interior inspections for this year. Notices about those inspections are going out to property owners this week, he said.
“I think a lot of this is people not understanding the program and not understanding the terms of the contract,” Bauchner said. “If you look at the percentages, RDS is performing above and beyond. I have yet to see anything to the contrary. Any benchmarks they have either hit or exceeded.”
Emails Clark originally sent to municipal assessors critiquing their work also made their way to Rubenstein, the documents obtained by the Press showed.
On Nov. 5, 2014, Clark emailed Marlboro Tax Assessor Rene Frotton after she did not revise values on almost 5,000 properties in the township. Clark sent the initial email directly to Frotton, but the public records show Rubenstein responded back to Clark about the message.
Rubenstein wrote in the email that he heard some “grumbling” from assessors on how his firm designated neighborhoods when it set property values, but that Marlboro’s neighborhoods were clear cut. Frotton could not be reached for comment.
“Could it have been any easier to review them?” Rubenstein wrote.
“She simply did NOTHING – and (I’m) not having it -,” Clark replied to Rubenstein about Frotton.
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