Editorial: N.J. property tax control efforts off to good start
Published: Tuesday, January 17, 2012, 7:10 AM
By Times of Trenton Editorial Board
After about a year with a 2 percent property tax increase cap in place, New Jersey taxpayers are reaping the benefits.
A Star-Ledger analysis finds that while taxes did go up last year for most, homeowners paid an average of just 2.4 percent more for property taxes in 2011. That’s the smallest increase in nearly two decades — and a strong indication that Gov. Chris Christie’s push to restrain local levies is getting results.
Those results, of course, did not come about without a lot of hard work and sacrifice in the towns where tax increases were minimal. Other municipalities, as prescribed, asked voters for permission to exceed the limit; still others, operating on a fiscal year rather than a calendar, have yet to weigh in on the changes.
With bipartisan support in the Legislature, the governor limited property tax increases for towns, schools and counties to 2 percent, starting last January. In order to comply with the new mandate, many towns were forced to lay off employees, cut services or shelve capital improvement projects.
Those are the kind of tough decisions that families throughout the region have been making for years: forgoing private school in favor of community college; buying a used car instead of a shiny new model; slicing vacations into a few weekend trips; and dozens of other cost-cutting measures.
In curtailing their spending, however, towns, like families, can only cut so much.
A professor of public administration at Rutgers University says municipal officials are making moderate cuts or using one-time fixes instead of axing whole departments or enacting long-term systemic changes.
“The 2 percent cap has worked,” says Raphael Caprio. “But at what point does it become a limitation to the quality of services that a town can provide?”
And there is always the sharp threat of emergency hanging over the most carefully planned budget. For instance, the killer storms of the summer and crush of snow in October conspired to raid municipal coffers.
The law does acknowledge those costs by allowing local officials to go over the property tax increase limit to cover expenses related to a state of emergency, debt service costs and employee pensions and health benefits payments.
As costs inevitably rise, however, another means of maintaining the slowed pace of property taxes is further municipal cooperation and consolidation of services. It took decades, but Princeton voters finally saw the wisdom in reuniting the borough and the township as a responsible response to the new economy.
Eliminating the countless incidences of daily duplication is something New Jersey county, town and school officials must seriously consider — sooner rather than later.