PRINCETON: Town eyeing new lawyer in property tax-exemption challenge against university

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
The same lawyer who represented Morristown in a property tax-exemption challenge against Morristown Medical Center is likely to be hired this month by the Princeton Council to represent the town in a similar case involving Princeton University.
Martin Allen, part of the same law firm as state Sen. Kip Bateman (R-16), is going to replace the current lawyer, Harry Haushalter, Councilwoman Jo S. Butler said Wednesday. Financial details of the arrangement were not disclosed, although she said he likely would be hired at the Dec. 21 council meeting.
It was unclear if all council members who can vote then support the hiring. Councilwoman Heather H. Howard will not be allowed to participate since she is a university employee, nor can Mayor Liz Lempert, given her husband is a Princeton professor.
Unlike Morristown, Princeton is technically a defendant in the lawsuit that four residents have brought in New Jersey tax court challenging the university’s property tax exemption. Ms. Butler said hiring Mr. Allen was “not” a sign the town is changing its position in the case, which has been to stay neutral.
In terms of what triggered the change in lawyers, she said town officials were “surprised” when Mr. Haushalter took the university’s side in a recent legal motion over who should have the burden of proof in the case. The judge hearing the matter ruled the university had to prove it deserved the exemption, a determination that the university intends to appeal.
But officials seemed to be of two minds. After the ruling came down, they were glad that municipal tax assessor Neal Snyder did not have the burden placed on him, given the implications that would have for future cases. But Ms. Butler suggested Mr. Haushalter’s stance on the burden of proof issue is why the town was replacing him.
Asked why the town would chose Mr. Allen over other lawyers, Ms. Butler said he “seemed like the right guy.”
For its part, Princeton University had no comment Wednesday.
Attorney Bruce I. Afran, the lawyer for the residents, said Wednesday that he hoped this meant that the town planned to take his clients’ side in the case.
He said he had never spoken with Mr. Allen before but did speak with a partner in Mr. Allen’s firm, William J. Willard, about the Morristown case. Mr. Willard was not involved in that litigation, Mr. Afran said.
The Morristown case involved a suit that the town brought against the hospital. Judge Vito Bianco, the same judge hearing the Princeton case, ruled against the hospital, which settled with the town for around $15 million rather than continue the legal battle.
Mr. Allen had met recently with the Princeton Council in closed session, although it was not known then that he would become the town’s lawyer in the Princeton case.
As for the university litigation, the school has filed another motion to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the judge has no jurisdiction, Mr. Afran said. To Mr. Afran, this latest attempt to get the suit thrown out shows the degree of concern the university has.
Should the university lose its exemption, the property tax structure in Princeton would change dramatically.