Special Session Must Attack Home Rule

Okay, so there is going to be a special session of the legislature in the next couple of weeks to allegedly deal with the issue of property taxes in New Jersey. This is the promise legislative leaders made to taxpayers to find tangible ways to reduce out of control property tax increases. I’m sorry if I am not more optimistic about this special session, but I find it somewhat laughable that our legislative leaders and others in power in the Statehouse say they are going to take on the issue of property taxes when they have historically been deathly afraid to take on one of the biggest contributors to the soaring property tax problem. Let’s not kid ourselves. New Jersey has an absolutely crazy structure of local governments and school districts. Not only do we have 21 counties, but we have 566 municipalities and 616 school districts. This is insane. The tradition of allowing local governments to “control” their own destiny when it comes to a range of development, environmental, educational and taxing issues is called “home rule.” It sounds innocuous enough, but the problem, however, is that for everyone to have their own police department, fire department, school system, main street downtown, parks, etc., costs an obscene amount of money. The practice of home rule is not effective nor is it efficient. Rather, it is wasteful and has also contributed to the segregation of New Jersey’s public school system. Don’t kid yourself, many school districts are set up to make sure that kids of a certain background went to school with kids of similar backgrounds and that other kids who didn„t look like them or weren’t of the same socioeconomic status would be excluded. The other reason for home rule is that people love the idea of having a unique identity. Should there really be a Princeton Borough and a Princeton Township? Every time they tried to regionalize services and the two municipalities, it failed. Apparently, residents in Princeton Borough didn„t want to give up their identification with a college of the same name in the Ivy League. We all want our own school superintendent looking out for our kids. We want to make sure we have neighborhood schools even if there aren„t enough students so that it makes sense. We all want our own fire department with a fire truck and a fire chief, even if our town is so small that it would make perfect sense to merge our fire department with the neighboring town. It’s called economies of scale. It’s called being more efficient and doing more with less. It’s called common sense. But this is New Jersey and no one ever confused our governmental history and tradition with common sense. Yet, if this special session of the state legislature is to be even remotely serious about getting property taxes under control, the wacky tradition of home rule has to be taken head on. There can be no sacred cows, no telling people what they want to hear because it makes them feel better. The governor and members of the legislature need to finally treat tax payers as if we were really adults who could understand that there are consequences for what we say we want. Governor Corzine is off to a good start in this regard given his mature and sensible handling of this most recent state budget. An increase in the sales tax wasn’t popular, but it was necessary. The same thing is true about home rule. The state can no longer simply encourage communities to share services, regionalize and merge when necessary. There needs to be consequences when local leaders refuse to do so. The state must begin to hold back state aid for those localities that refused to act responsible. Taxpayers need to understand that you can„t have a school district with one school. Taxpayers need to understand that one of the biggest reasons property taxes continue to soar is that paying a principal, a vice principal and a superintendent for one school makes absolutely no sense. Yet, if they insist that is what they want, our political leaders must tell them they have no one to blame for soaring property taxes but themselves. Look, tearing down the tradition of home rule in itself will not solve the property tax problem, but ignoring it or simply toying with it on the margins will only guarantee that anything else the legislature does will be window dressing and our property taxes will continue to be the highest in the country. So here’s the deal. When the legislature meets for their special session, all of us who say we are sick and tired of our property taxes going up (mine have gone up over $10,000 in the past four years) must hold our political leaders accountable for their actions. We must demand of them that they demand of us and our local leaders that we no longer act like petulant and spoiled children who want what we want but don„t want to accept the consequences. Anything less that that will make this so-called special session nothing more than a farce.

Special Session Must Attack Home Rule