A new judge is coming to New Jersey's tax court, bringing a small bit of much-needed relief to a swelling backlog of property tax appeals.
The new appointee, Kathi Fiamingo, was confirmed by the state Senate last week shortly after being nominated by Gov. Chris Christie. She becomes the seventh judge in the state's tax court, with her approval coming just ahead of Tuesday's deadline for property owners in most towns to appeal their tax assessments.
Fiamingo, the outgoing mayor of Kenilworth, assumes the post as appeals continue to mount across the Garden State. Data from the judiciary show a backlog of nearly 44,000 pending cases through last June — many of them going back several years — and experts say there is no slowdown in sight.
That's because the market for many types of commercial real estate has not recovered from the downturn, while expenses continue to rise. In many cases, those circumstances are not reflected in the assessed property values that municipalities use to calculate their tax bills, experts say.
But a new judge should at least help chip away at the backlog, said David Wolfe, a Livingston-based property tax attorney with Skoloff & Wolfe P.C.
"Another judge will be a great resource for the tax court," Wolfe said. "They do a tremendous job in handling the large caseloads that they have, but adding an additional judge … can only assist in the quality of the process for all of the litigants — both the taxpayers and the municipalities."
The tax court hears appeals of decisions made by county tax boards. But landlords whose assessed values are above $1 million can go directly to the state panel, making it the venue for most commercial property disputes.
The tax court's website says there are 12 judgeships overall, but it's not clear if more appointments are coming. A spokesman for Christie did not return a message Monday about whether the governor plans to file any other nominations.
Christie had previously nominated Fiamingo to be a Superior Court judge, but the selection was stalled with other judicial nominations. Last week's confirmation reportedly took place with little discussion by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
More than 25,000 new cases were filed during fiscal year 2013, and it seems the surge continued through Tuesday's deadline. Wolfe said he was still fielding calls about tax appeals through 4 p.m.
"We had messengers running out the door and getting our cases filed," he said.
More heavy lifting is in store for at least several more weeks. For towns that are conducting a revaluation, property owners have until May 1 to appeal.