Bill Merdinger, the tax assessor for Glen Ridge, is the most obstinate, cussed, curmudgeonly, infuriating person you’ll find in borough hall these days — and I think he would consider that compliment. Merdinger is actually retired and drawing a pension but the town is paying him $14,999 – the legal amount for retired tax assessors – to oversee the town’s first tax revaluation in 25 years. Merdinger keeps working “because I love to hang around and aggravate people,” he says with a sly smile. “I get worried when somebody praises me.”
Well, then he should be happy. Merdinger’s not a bad guy at all, once you get to know him, but getting to know him — actually even getting to him — feels a little like getting past some vicious three-headed dog in a Harry Potter book. Merdinger may be the only person in the United States of America who doesn’t have e-mail; he doesn’t appear to check his voicemail, which frequently fills up to capacity; there’s no sign-up sheet outside his off to schedule an appointment, and if you should pop your head in his office while he’s talking to someone, he’ll bark, “Have you filed an appeal?” If the answer is no, he’ll tell you to go away. Unless, like me, you push back.
With the filing deadline for a tax appeal just over a month away, that’s not sitting well with many taxpayers, including this tipster.
Oh boy the fun is just beginning! Just got back from trying to arrange an appt. with Bill Merdinger, Tax Assessor for Glen Ridge, who is unavailable, by phone or otherwise, despite announcing in The Glen Ridge Paper that residents can make an appt. if they need help filing an appeal with Essex Co. Tax Board. I tried calling all morning but his voice mail was full, so I wrote a letter asking him for an appt. I went to deliver the letter and was told to wait until he finished his call. 40 minutes later he told the receptionist to tell the residents that ” I am being called to an emergency, I haven’t had lunch- just give then this form”- all this while he is 4 ft. away from “the residents” refusing to make eye contact. While we waited, he made no attempt to be discreet about his conversation regarding his ongoing work in determining the new tax rate- in fact, it seemed he wanted us to hear that the way things are going “there will be stampedes by residents- they’re not stupid this group, they’ll fight .” What will cause stampedes is his behaviour, his disregard for the residents that are paying his salary, his rudeness, the fact that one has to go to East Orange to get an appeal form and wait 50 minutes because the staff is having a lunch party and the front office is empty while you hear their laughter- not to mention one has to park 5 blocks away in a neighborhood I’d rather stay away from.
“She’s a pain in the ass,” Merdinger said after I read the tip aloud in his office. “You can quote me.”
The problem is that Bill Merdinger is just about the only person you can get reliable tax information from in Glen Ridge these days. He’s furious at the borough council for publishing everybody’s initial certified assessments online, and for publishing what he calls inaccurate information about the revaluation in the fall issue of Town Talk. He also told me that everything I learned in the informal hearing conducted by Realty Appraisal a few weeks ago was wrong.
The representatives from Realty Appraisal tried to scare me out of filing an appeal, saying that it could lead to a tax revaluation increase and warning me that I’d only have a 3 percent chance of winning. And they said that they couldn’t take into consideration the fact that my house has decidedly downscale aluminum siding.
Wrong on all three counts, says Merdinger. While he could file a cross-petition in the case of a tax appeal, he would only do so in the most egregious cases. For example, a homeowner trying to lower a house valuation of $1 million while they had their house on the market for $2 million. The chances of winning an appeal are greater than 3 percent. And my tin siding? That’s called “curable functionable obsolesence,” he says, and absolutely may lower my house value.
Moreover, Merdinger says he doesn’t discourage anybody from filing an appeal, and will even help taxpayers fill out the forms if they want. (That is, if they can get past the three-headed dog.) And if you’re looking for a property tax attorney, Merdinger points out that they all work on contingency, and even gives hints about how to find reputable ones. Many of the best work for neighboring municipalities, Merdinger says. Apparently, they all freelance.
So how do you get your own personal meeting with Bill Merdinger? Well, unless you’re as pushy as the Barista you probably don’t. But here’s the good news. Merdinger is meeting with community groups, so if you can get your book group or train buddies together, you can schedule something with him. He’s meeting next week with residents of Douglas Road, who feel they’ve been unfairly assessed.
Merdinger he agrees that some areas in town may be over-assessed (and that might include Douglas Road), and he’s trying to find those areas and bring them into line. “I’m the guy on the beach with the lantern looking for the truth,” he insists.
Merdinger also says that the council is trying to plan a time between now and May 1 for Merdinger to take questions from the public.
And here’s the best news of all. Merdinger has been giving an assistant to help him through the current reval mess, and his assistant, Treasor Gopaul, does have an email. Hallelujah! The best way to reach the tax man is now through Trea: Tgopaul@glenridgenj.org.
Note: Merdinger refused to have his photo taken for this story, but did allow me to take a picture of his finger, pointing to a tax map. And Montclair residents, if you went through a successful appeal and know a good attorney, let us know in the comments.