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These stories by Barbara Fox and Peter J. Mladineo were published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on August 19, 1998. All rights reserved.
Life in the Fast Lane
If you own and rent out commercial property, when the market goes sour you can put on a long face and run to the tax assessor to ask to have your assessment cut. Your assessment, after all, can be affected by vacancy rates.
That's what Credit Suisse/First Boston may have tried to do when it asked Plainsboro to reduce the assessment on 700 College Road; it appealed the taxes from 1994 to 1998. But in point of fact, the market wasn't going sour during that time period, it was getting better.
Not only was the appeal denied, but also First Boston ended up having to pay the township for its legal expenses (the municipal equivalent of pain and suffering) of $115,946. The settlement was approved by township committee last month.
"The momentum shifts toward the township when the economy improves," says Jean Jacobsohn, Plainsboro's tax assessor. "It is difficult to defend value when the economy is on a downswing. It is more fun to be a tax assessor when the economy is doing well."
First Boston's 178,800 square-foot 700 College Road building -- built like a fortress -- continues to be assessed at $22,525,000. If First Boston had gotten what it wanted, an annual reduction of just under $140,000, the township would have had to refund nearly $700,000. "When the township feels that its assessment reflects the legitimate value of a property, it is our policy to vigorously defend it," says Mayor Peter Cantu, who wants to protect the township's "freedom and flexibility" to adjust property values to market conditions. "Fairness to other taxpayers and to other government entities that rely on property taxes is at stake."
Though you'd think that a victory over First Boston could signal a victory over Merrill Lynch's much talked about tax appeal, that's not necessarily true. What is true is that the Merrill Lynch case could be resolved soon. A mediator inspected the Scudders Mill Road property -- 600 acres with one giant building of 1.25 million square feet including the conference training center -- last week.
"What the parties have done in the Merrill Lynch case is to have a mediator, a former judge of the tax court, come into the case to try to resolve it for us," says Richard M. Conley, a tax lawyer with the Archer & Greiner office on Lenox Drive. Conley is defending the township in the Merrill Lynch appeal and successfully resolved the First Boston appeal. "The mediator went through the property last week. He has all the appraisal reports and all the briefs. We will meet with him and hopefully he will make some recommendations to save some litigation costs." The recommendation is, nevertheless, not binding on either party.
The big controversy over the Merrill Lynch assessment and the smaller controversy about First Boston began when Plainsboro Township began its total reassessment in 1992. The real estate market had finished its downward plunge and was starting to improve. "We felt there were a number of buildings in the community that were probably out of whack, both commercial and residential, so we reevaluated all the taxable properties in town," says Patrick Guilfoyle, township administrator.
A private revaluation company set new values for the 1993 tax year. Commercial assessments are based on the most appropriate of three approaches: comparable sales, income and expense, and/or cost of construction. For instance, for new construction that has no income stream, cost of construction is the obvious approach.
Merrill Lynch, which has some 2,700 employees on Scudders Mill Road, began to appeal the $170 million assessment of its building in 1993. On just the building (excluding the surrounding "farmland") it pays $4.46 million in taxes annually. In the worst case scenario for the township, the township might have to refund more than $7 million (covering the five years of the case) and might suffer a loss of $1.2 million in annual revenue.
But tax appeals can have unintended consequences. In the worst case scenario for Merrill Lynch, its appeal would be denied, its assessment would be found too low, and it would owe the township a considerable additional sum. So far, $800,000 has been authorized to defend the township against the Merrill Lynch appeal.
First Boston appealed in 1994. The building in question, 700 College Road, was designed for First Boston and is heavily engineered with redundant backup generators that occupy most of the first floor. First Boston has a data processing back office that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When Credit Suisse took over First Boston the number of data operation workers in the building was reduced and they now occupy the third floor.
"We don't know First Boston's reason for filing, which is one of the reasons we denied the appeal," says Guilfoyle. "Typically we sit down with the property owner and they review details and information with us. For instance, we have gone through the appeal with all of the apartment complexes in the past 10 years. It's a moving target depending on market conditions."
"Appeals declined precipitously as the vacancy rates improved. All over the state we had had a lot of empty office buildings and hotels with very low occupancy," says Jacobsohn. Not only are offices full, but they are leasing out at higher rates, and she had no new commercial appeals this year.
"When push came to shove, First Boston offered to withdraw the appeal and to reimburse us for our legal expenses," says Guilfoyle. "Since First Boston filed, what we have seen is a decrease in vacancy rates." Bloomberg Financial Group has started to move in to occupy the vacant space on the first and second floors.
Date to keep in mind: Any New Jersey property owner has the right to appeal an assessment for any reason in any year until the April 1 deadline. But when you make an appeal, you also run the risk of having your taxes raised and owing more than what you have already paid.
-- Barbara Fox
Last September Jeffrey M. Sasmor stepped down as a director of Ariel Corporation and has resurfaced with a new technology start-up at 306 Alexander Street, above the Princeton Conservatory.
Sasmor hasn't had a falling out with Ariel but is developing a new technology, an outboard audio/video storage device that connects to PCs using a universal serial bus. "With a universal serial bus the number of things that can go wrong is very limited, because you're not plugging in a card that may interfere with other cards," he says. "It's very often true when you plug a card in a PC you have to make a lot of phone calls to make your computer work again. The universal service bus and others like it are the wave of the future."
Sasmor, 48, has a degree in mass communication from City University of New York's Queens College (Class of '72), and a BS in electrical engineering from CCNY (Class of '81). He spent 12 years at Eventide, a Manhattan-based developer of digital audio and avionics products, before coming to Ariel, where he was one of the founders.
At Ariel Sasmor served as a chief technology and vice chairman, and says he maintains good relationships with the company and its CEO, Anthony Agnello. "I wanted to get back into technology as opposed to doing management," he says.
The human resources consulting firm doubled its space with a move from 233 Probasco Road, East Windsor. It does retainer-based executive search for the plastics and metal-stamping industries and is always looking for engineering executives with experience in manufacturing sub miniature component parts. It does other forms of human resource consulting as well, and it sometimes partners with Caliper, the Mount Lucas Road-based human resources testing firm.
A domestic search costs the client 30 percent of the hired executive's salary (plus expenses) and an international search is 33 1/3 percent. This works out to $30,000 or $40,000 dollars; the firm does 12 to 18 senior level searches a year, says John W. Guarniere, the president. "For the last five years we have been focusing on a dozen technologies. We have 20,000 key names in our databases, and after we know what our client is looking for, we make 200 to 300 calls." The recipients of these calls "are usually very kind and tell us to talk to this person or that person." His hiring recommendations come with a year's guarantee.
Guarniere will be the only non-technical speaker at a plastics convention in Detroit in November, and his firm will be joined by Caliper for the occasion. "They have a fantastic test," he says. "We were spending a couple of thousand dollars per candidate with an industrial psychologist, and we found the Caliper test to be a better way of screening our top management. From the test, we get good information that a recruiter can use.
Guarniere went to Long Island University, Class of 1966, and was director of staffing for Sterling Drug and the Crane Company (an aerospace and industrial products manufacturer). In order to avoid a cross country move he founded his company 15 years ago. His wife, Lamia, works in the four-person business, and they have two grown children. He believes he was among the first to bail out of the corporate career path. "I was ahead of my time," he says. "People are now realizing that the corporate world isn't as safe as they thought."
But his entrepreneurial edge came from his father, who "owned restaurants and coffee shops all over New York and Manhattan" and put his seven children to work in them. The one hobby his father enjoyed -- handicapping -- has been Guarniere's passion as well. "I owned a trotter years ago and intend to buy a few in the future." In the meantime he plays third base for the Golden Coach Diner in the Twin Rivers softball league.
The diabetes center will move in September from 4,273 square feet at 100 Canal Pointe to a larger space at 707 Alexander Road. H. Howard Goldstein is the medical director.
The software development and marketing firm expanded from Princeton Professional Park to almost twice the space. It has a new phone and fax.
Sixty-two acres owned by Charles Jones Inc. at Klockner Road and Route 130, next to the Trenton Post Office, have long been vacant and ripe for acquiring. Now the post office has bought nine of the acres at a price of $810,000 ($90,000 per acre). Richard V. Lane of Richardson Commercial Realtors represented both seller and buyer.
"Due to the rapid growth of the Route 130 corridor, the post office felt it would be beneficial to make the purchase at this time to prepare for future expansions," says Lane. He notes that his first approach to the Trenton Post Office elicited no interest. Then the federal real estate division of the postal service called and wanted to buy it. Though the purchase is for future expansion it will be put to immediate use to redesign the traffic pattern for postal service trucks to head off any potential problems that the new Wal-Mart will bring.
The sale process was long and involved, says Lane. In addition to working with federal and local post office officials, an archaeologist had to be hired. "We got held up for three months while they made sure there were no bones on the site," says Lane. "At a cost of $20,000 they determined that this property was deemed a walkway, not a burial site."
Fifty three acres remain on the Charles Jones property; sale price is $3.75 million, or $70,750 per acre.
Edison Venture Fund is moving from 997 Lenox Drive to a larger space in a newer building at 1009 Lenox Drive, Building 4, Suite 200. Phone and fax remain the same. Founded in 1986 and specializing in equity financing and guidance to growing companies with proprietary technologies or unique services in emerging markets, Edison was one of the most active venture capital firms in the state last year.
The newspaper firm owned by media mogul Mark Goodson was sold and divided between Gannett and the Journal Register. To Gannett went the papers in Morristown, Toms River, and Manahawkin. Journal Register acquired a half-dozen out of state papers. Three of the 10 people in this office remain for a short time to close it down; the space will be occupied by Edison Venture Capital.
After two years at Constitution Center, Francis J. Brennan moved from Route 130 in Cranbury to a 150-year-old building in downtown Cranbury. "We wanted to be in the historic district of Cranbury," says Brennan, "and we wanted our own stand-alone building." Renovations to what had been a residence were made by Enourato & Sons Construction and George Conley, electrician.
The five person firm has two other attorneys, David R. Forrey and Patrick S. Brennan and a full docket of services, including civil and environmental litigation, municipal court matters, criminal defense, commercial real estate, labor and employment law, and other types of business law.
Vertex Technologies was doing business as Win Laboratories but it has dropped that name. As a Microsoft partner it makes IBM-compatible desktop computers and has expanded to 20 employees.
Princeton Biostatistics Group changed its name to Princeton Biosciences Group. The change reflects its widening specializations within the contract research realm. These now include clinical data management, biostatistics, SAS programming, and medical writing.
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