What can public officials do to control property taxes?
Unsurprisingly, that was the main topic as legislators and mayors threw around ideas at the League of Municipalities’ 19th Annual Mayors’ Legislative Day, held at the State House on Wednesday.
They discussed how they can prevent state residents from fleeing to nearby states like Pennsylvania and Maryland, or from losing their homes, which tends to not only be the residents’ largest safety net, but their largest investment as well.
Despite efforts to share and consolidate services, some mayors found the moves did little to prevent annual tax hikes.
Legislators agreed that state government is bloated.
Among the ideas that were floated were to rely on other sources of revenues besides property taxes, such as income taxes, reforming the state pension and benefits programs, and to “shrink the cost of government,” as state Senate President Stephen Sweeney said.
Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, (D-6), of Voorhees, said the way local governments and school districts are funded must be restructured.
“We have burdened you with the most regressive tax,” he said about property taxes.
Changes must be made to the way pensions are funded, along with other benefits that elected officials agreed to provide for public employee unions in the past, he said.
“It’s not sustainable,” he said.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, (D-34), of East Orange, echoed his sentiments.
“Anyone running a public entity, you know where the biggest pieces are,” Oliver said. “We have to bring down those costs. We can’t afford it.”
Two mayors attested to the sky-high, single-year increases in pension benefits in their respective towns. East Windsor Mayor Janice Mironov said pension costs went up 33 percent and Gary Passanante, mayor of Somerdale, said his town saw a 31 percent increase for the same benefits.
Passanante said “we need to look at the fundamental structure.” The mayor of the Camden County town of 5,500 residents is all for sharing services and consolidating, but finds that some state rules get in the way of making the concept a reality.
For example, if four police departments were to form a single regional law enforcement unit, the new wages for the employees would likely mirror the wages from the town that paid the most to their police officers. Such a condition would do little to save money, Passanante said.
“They get harmonized to the highest level,” Passanante said about the salaries. “That’s a major impediment.”
Eatontown Mayor Gerald Tarantolo said the way the Garden State funds public education (property taxes) needs to change, a remark that generated applause from the hundreds of elected officials gathered.
State officials must get to the root of the problem, and not find mere Band-Aids, like the 2 percent property tax cap, he said.
“I’d like to see more tax reform, not tax relief,” he said.
Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, (R-12), of Red Bank, a budget officer, said he has noticed “a dramatic change” in the public’s attention to such a traditionally dry topic like pension reform, since it affects their pocketbooks.
The change seems to be welcome.
“The public’s tuning-in and holding us accountable is a help.”