User-fee bill pros, cons weighed in Assembly

TRENTON – It’s been nearly a year since the user fee bill last came up for a vote.

Last May, the Senate approved S1914 by a 32-0 vote. The bill, sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney, (D-3), of West Deptford, would bar towns from assessing fees on some services as a way to avoid the 2 percent property tax cap.

The bill came about after several municipalities throughout the state started issuing such user fees as another way to raise revenue without exceeding the 2 percent property tax cap that was put in place a couple of years ago.

At the time, Sweeney described user fees as “a cleverly conceived way to hide from folks that their taxes are going up yet again.”

While the Senate and Gov. Chris Christie see eye to eye on the issue, the Assembly has yet to take up a vote on the bill. The administration says that as the Assembly dithers, much-needed property tax relief to residents is being delayed.

In a recent release, the administration accused the Democrats of failing to close tax cap loopholes, and accused Democrats of “hitting the brakes” on tax relief.

It’s not clear why it hasn’t come up for a vote in the Assembly.

However, Tom Hester, a spokesperson for Speaker Sheila Oliver, (D-34), of East Orange, said the bill is still being reviewed.

“We continue to review the bill and its potential impact on services such as recreation programs and local government flexibility,” he said in a statement.

However, Assemblyman Gary Schaer, (D-36), of Passaic, who serves on the Budget Committee, said from his review, the legislation is too broad and overreaching, and it would stifle local governments’ ability to preserve their respective towns’ quality of life.

From his reading of the legislation, Schaer said that if a town wanted to build a community pool and charge residents fees to support the pool’s upkeep, “they can’t charge a fee for it.”

But the intention of the bill is to prevent towns from issuing the fees on services that are traditionally covered by property taxes, such as trash pick-up. Language was added in a follow-up draft of the bill mentioning specifics.

The bill identifies traditional municipal services as “including, but not limited to, the clearing and lighting of roads and streets, the collection and disposal of solid waste, leaves, and recyclable materials along the roads and streets, general police patrol and response, and fire response.”

Schaer said that “What it may intend to do, and its unintended consequences, are two different things.”

Schaer, who is Passaic Council president, has seen his town implement user fees for water usage and recreational activities.

However, he said he’s not totally opposed to the idea of preventing towns from imposing such fees.

“If the bill clearly spells what it would cover and what it would not cover, I’d be more favorable in supporting it,” he said.  

The issue of such fees struck a chord when at least two towns – Medford and Lawrence – posted such fees for a public vote last year.

User-fee bill pros, cons weighed in Assembly