TRENTON – Legislation that Senate lawmakers say would limit local governments’ ability to sidestep the state’s 2 percent property tax cap only highlights the importance of state officials engaging in meaningful discussion on tax relief funding issues.
It’s a message likely to be echoed in the coming weeks and months by municipalities and local leaders, and one that was repeated Monday by the executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, William Dressel.
“These are difficult times,” Dressel said. “I think local officials have a responsibility to look at all options available to them to provide essential quality of life services at an affordable cost.”
Dressel spoke following announcements by two Senate lawmakers on both sides of the aisle Monday, who indicated they each intended to introduce legislation that would prevent municipalities from making “end runs” around the state’s 2 percent property tax cap.
Senate President Steve Sweeney, (D-3), West Deptford, and Sen. Anthony Bucco, (R-25), Boonton, both said they will introduce bills that would prevent towns from using certain “user fees” to sidestep the state’s tax cap.
“Our backs are up against the wall,” said Dressel, praising the governor and Legislature on improvements in the area of bonding arbitration, and insurance and health benefits reforms, but saying more needs to be done for local governments so leaders can rein in deficits while providing essential services.
Dressel said he did not know the specifics of either bill, but said he hopes discussions of “user fees” will lead to a broader conversation on the challenges faced by local leaders – such as their growing dissatisfaction with Energy Tax Receipts dollars increasingly being diverted to the state budget, for example.
The latter is expected to be a key issue highlighting Tuesday’s Mayors’ Roundtable before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. Similarly, Dressel and the New Jersey League of Municipalities will host a news conference ahead of the roundtable to discuss the diversion of energy tax dollars.
Assemblyman Gary Schear, (D-36), of Passaic, who also serves as a councilman of Passaic County’s largest municipality, said he would strongly recommend legislators discuss the issue of so-called “user fees” with town government officials before going forward with any legislation to do away with them.
“I would only suggest respectfully that they speak with their local municipalities,” Schaer said in a brief interview.
The user fees have been put in place in some municipalities to raise revenue and close budget gaps and shortfalls. But state lawmakers have dismissed the fees as nothing more than a way to circumvent the hard 2 percent property tax cap Gov. Chris Christie instituted.
According to an ordinance the city passed some time ago, a user fee would be imposed on people who require certain emergencies, such as firefighters using the “jaws of life.”
“These are extraordinary services that have got to be paid for,” Schaer said. “Who’s going to pay for it? Either the direct user or the taxpayers.”
Schaer himself voted for the 2 percent cap.
When asked if the point of property taxes is that they are already intended to pay for services like police and fire, Schear said that “Philosophically, they may have a point. Practically speaking, they don’t.”