Corzine Can’t Cut Property Taxes Alone

By Steve Adubato, Ph.D. Over 200 mayors and council members met with Governor Jon Corzine this past week to talk about the only topic that really matters in New Jersey these days– property taxes and what to do about them. Local officials are up in arms regarding two initiatives proposed by the governor. The first is the establishment of the state comptroller, who would monitor municipal finances in an effort to find the waste, fraud and abuse that everyone talks about but few ever seem to find. The other item the mayors and council members can’t seem to accept is Corzine’s proposed “four percent cap,” or limit, on the annual property tax increases in any community. Both proposals seem logical and rational in the effort to stem the tide of out of control property taxes, which are rising on average seven percent in recent years. This is a rate that is twice the national average. Any person with common sense realizes that such drastic times call for at least reasonable measures, if not something more. The local officials would hear nothing of it. They told Corzine that they didn’t want the state comptroller poking his nose in every municipal and school budget. They wondered how much power the comptroller would have and why such a move would be necessary. Corzine tried to position the comptroller’s post as a positive effort to help local officials find ways to cut costs and ultimately hold the line on property taxes. Further, a state comptroller would have the ability to recommend shared services and consolidation of local services that mayors, council members and school officials either couldn’t or wouldn’t want to see. But again, local officials would have none of it. According to Frenchtown Mayor Ron Sworen, “Mayors are not the problem.” That’s what everyone seems to say every time Corzine addresses a particular group and how they may be contributing to the property tax problem in New Jersey. Local officials say they are not the problem. Public employees say they are not the problem. State officials often argue that they don’t set property tax rates, rather, only local officials can. Everyone points the finger at someone else, while absolving themselves of any responsibility. As for the four percent cap on local property taxes that Corzine proposes, the local officials he met with said such an approach would have a devastating effect on municipal services. “This four percent cap means instant layoffs for a lot of municipalities,” said Piscataway Mayor Brian Wahler. Other mayors said this four percent cap would force local governments to cut services, including police and fire protection as well as garbage pick up and street maintenance. Imagine, the mayors argue that the only way to allow property taxes to grow by four percent or less in their community would be to basically shut a town down. Is that what we have come to in New Jersey? Here’s the deal. If New Jersey citizens rightfully demand that property taxes either be reduced or at least kept where they are, something has got to give. Tough choices must be made. But those tough choices can’t only come from Trenton. Legislators and the governor can’t get it done alone. Local officials, as well as citizens in those communities, must decide what they really want. It’s simple math. If local officials are right, that the only way to keep property tax increases to four percent or less is to slash local services, citizens must decide if that is what they want. If that is not what they want, then there is no reasonable expectation that property taxes will go down. If citizens don’t want to merge their fire and police departments or their local high school with a smaller high school in a neighboring town, they have every right to that, but then again there is no reasonable expectation that property taxes will go anywhere but up. Something has got to give¦and fast. Simply saying, “I’m not the problem, it’s the other guy,” isn’t going to help because that approach is a big part of what got us in this property tax mess in the first place. Local officials have a really tough job, no doubt about it, particularly living under a variety of mandates to do certain things that cost big bucks. Yet, Governor Jon Corzine may have an almost impossible job, but he is still doing all he can to do the things necessary to cut property taxes. Clearly he has made mistakes along the way, but I still believe he is on the right track. Remember, he is the governor; he is not the king. He is not an emperor who can unilaterally make these things happen. He needs support, help and cooperation to get these things done, even if it makes others uncomfortable. If this past week’s meeting with officials was any indication, there is little reason to be hopeful. I hope I’m wrong.

Corzine Can’t Cut Property Taxes Alone