For Real Property Tax Relief, We Need a Real Tool-kit

BY BOB GORDON If you believe the flyers recently mailed to my legislative district by Governor Christie’s allies at Reform Jersey Now, enactment of the “tool kit” will yield immediate relief from our state’s oppressively high property taxes.  The truth is that reforms to the binding arbitration and civil service laws may dampen spending growth over time, but most of these initiatives will have virtually no impact on tax bills in 2011 or in the immediate future.

Here in New Jersey we need to face a harsh reality.  Property taxes are high because of the great duplication and inefficiency associated with the most fragmented system of local government in the nation.  As long as we maintain our patchwork of 566 towns, 616 school districts and countless municipal authorities, our taxpayers will be forced to pay for more personnel and equipment than we need.  The gross inefficiency becomes obvious when we compare ourselves with other jurisdictions.  Consider the fact that Bergen County, with its 70 towns, has more emergency vehicles than all five boroughs of New York City, an area with ten times the population.  Similarly, the administrative cost per pupil in New Jersey is five times that of Maryland, a state with only 24 school districts.

If we are really looking for short-term tax relief, we need a different set of tools.  We need policies that will encourage more shared services and consolidation among our municipalities and school districts.  Public entities are no different than corporations.  By merging, organizations can shed excessive administrative overhead and redundant facilities and equipment.  For the average New Jersey municipality, the tax savings can be substantial and immediate.

Instead of pummeling Democratic legislators for questioning the efficacy of his proposals, Governor Christie should partner with us in developing meaningful consolidation legislation that will have a real impact on the cost of local government.  We can begin by eliminating the obstacles that impede citizen-led efforts to merge communities.

One such obstacle was revealed by recent events in South Jersey.  In 2007, the Legislature enacted a measure which allows citizens or municipal governments to petition the state to merge their communities.  Several weeks ago, the residents of Merchantville, a town of about 3,800 people, applied that law when they gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition to merge their town with neighboring Cherry Hill. Cherry Hill officials endorsed the merger by passing a resolution of support.  Both documents were submitted to the state Local Finance Board, with the request that the agency approve the next step, a study evaluating the proposed merger. 

Instead of embracing the towns’ efforts, the Board ruled that the application did not adhere to an arcane technicality that requires all towns involved to employ the same approval process, i.e., all towns must submit either petitions from their residents, or resolutions from their town councils.  There can be no mixing of the two.  Given the Governor’s interest in reducing local government costs, the Board’s ruling is baffling. 

In response, Assemblywoman Connie Wagner and I introduced a bill that would prevent this kind of inane situation from happening again.  The legislation, S-2465, would allow a combination of resident petitions and governing body resolutions in any application for consolidation. 

I would add two other tools– a mechanism to protect businesses from higher tax rates and a device to measure municipal efficiency.

The former would remove a major obstacle when a town with a relatively low tax rate considers merging with one having a much higher tax rate.  The new, “blended” tax rate may result in higher taxes before the merger’s savings materialize, and that concern has doomed several consolidation efforts.  In 2007, the Legislature responded to this problem by freezing post-merger tax bills for homeowners, but inexplicably, excluded businesses.  A bill I drafted, S-2464, extends the tax shield to commercial taxpayers.

Consolidation initiatives would also advance if municipal leaders understood how much more efficient their towns could be, and how they rank against their peers.  Having that information might motivate officials to consider consolidation, and would certainly lead taxpayers to challenge the status quo.  Currently, we are unable to perform this kind of benchmarking, but the data and analytical tools are readily available.  Rutgers estimates that the shared services prompted by performance measurement could cut 3 to 5 percent from municipal budgets.  

In my view, these are the kind of bills that belong in a real “tool kit.”  What we need are not proposals that tinker around the edges, but initiatives that will facilitate grassroots efforts to bring about meaningful reductions in government costs.

Senator Bob Gordon represents the 38th Legislative District of Bergen County.  He serves as Vice Chair of the Senate State Government Committee, Vice Chair of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, and is a member of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee.

For Real Property Tax Relief, We Need a Real Tool-kit