Responding to testimony by mayors before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee in Trenton, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the panel's chairman, said it has become clear that Gov. Chris Christie‘s tax "tool kit" for holding down municipal and county government and school district spending is missing two key elements: cost certainty on health care and pensions and state aid.
Frenchtown Mayor Ron Sworen, an officer with the state League of Municipalities agreed.
"The simple fact is that nothing in the tool kit we're now preparing can help municipalities and school districts more than the state finally taking control over the costs it passes on," Sarlo said. "Talk to any local official and you'll hear the same story: The tool kit is nice, but nothing would be more valuable than the state finally stepping up and doing its part to helping property taxpayers.''The Budget Committee has begun reviewing version of 32 bills proposed by Christie and 34 by Legislative Democrats that propose ways to hold down local government and school spending.
Sarlo said that while many of the so-called tool kit items may improve municipal efficiency, few would deliver any real, noticeable and sustainable savings to property taxpayers.
The senator said state aid to both schools and municipalities have been slashed over recent years, even while the pension and health care bills the state hands to local officials have increased. He said that even with the exemption of health benefit costs from the cap, the 12-percent average increase being given to towns that participate in the State Health Benefits Program means many towns will be hard-pressed to keep their property tax increases at or below 2 percent.
"If the state is truly concerned about controlling property taxes, then it must put a cap on the bills it hands towns and schools for pensions and health care," Sarlo said. "At the same time, Trenton needs to begin to restore the hundreds of millions in state aid it has taken away. And from what we heard today, these twin goals would have support from both Democrats and Republicans."
"No elected official ever wants to raise taxes," Sworen, a League of Municipalities official, said. "But the state sets tax policy for all New Jersey governments. And only state action can provide true local property tax reform. Local officials need real solutions to real cost drivers, whether they are inside or outside any arbitrary cap. They need to know that the State will honor its promise of property tax relief revenue replacement funding. Only real reforms can provide immediate and sustainable property tax relief. Only the state can deliver real reforms."
East Windsor Mayor Janice Mironov, also a League officials, urged the committee members to focus on issues like the state's retention of Energy Tax property tax relief funding, arbitration reforms, further civil service reforms and cap considerations regarding the reserve for uncollected taxes and the burden of assessment appeals.
"The governor was right when he said, ‘New caps without the toolkit are unworkable,''' Mironov said. "Having reached agreement on unworkable new caps, the Trenton establishment needs to get serious about the struggle against oppressive, regressive property taxes. Local officials need to see action on the toolkit management reforms and on mandates relief initiatives. Local taxpayers need assurances that the Trenton establishment will end the diversion of vital municipal revenue replacement funding, such as the Energy Tax, which was never intended for state use.
"Real reform takes more than caps and revenue replacement funding cuts, neither of which do anything to address New Jersey's property tax burden, which is worst in the nation,'' Mironov added. "The caps will only slow the growth of the burden. They will not reduce it. And the cuts are no help at all."
The committee will hold additional hearings on Aug. 12 and 16 with a Senate voting session set for Aug. 23.
– TOM HESTER SR., NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM