In what can only be described as a short sighted reaction to short sighted action, Democratic legislators are introducing their own version of a property tax cap, which has a few more bells and whistles than Governor Christie’s hard cap/constitutional amendment.
The problem with both versions is that they don’t address the root issues and will likely result in more service cuts than administrative savings. The problem with the Democratic version is that it ALSO fails on a political level – it takes a losing idea that is merely a band-aid on a gunshot wound and legitimizes it, but tinkers around the edges and puts a different color bow on top.
A few days ago, Murray Sabrin had an article in the Record that talked about that dreaded “c-word” (no, not that one) – consolidation. And while I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of the substance of his article, we have been talking about it here at Blue Jersey for a while. And quite frankly, without some form of consolidation – whether it be duplicate services in adjacent towns, overly bloated administrators (both on the county and local municipality and school levels) or unnecessary costs (I’ve talked about having a Village, County and State police force as a bit of overkill, for example) – any form of cap will be window dressing.
Over the past couple of weeks, there were two interesting articles that basically confirmed this view. The first, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, hits the nail right on the head on a “one size fits all sledgehammer approach”
Moreover, the Manhattan Institute report looks only at one area of local public services: education. It ignores the host of other problems Proposition 2 ½ has caused in towns across Massachusetts – from deteriorating roads to poorly lit streets to longer police and fire response times.
A state desiring to lower property taxes can figure out the reasons its property taxes are higher than it would like and make specific policy changes to lower costs when it is possible to do so without undermining public services. In addition, it can provide targeted, direct property tax relief to residents, and it can create alternative revenue sources to relieve pressure on the property tax.
In specifically dealing with New Jersey, this report also notes that while Christie is looking to avenge his vendetta against public school teachers (my words, and maybe because of his actions back when a student), teacher salaries is NOT a big factor in higher education costs in NJ as compared to Massachusetts. In fact, it is the facts that NJ has 591 school districts and spends $1,000 more than Massachusetts PER STUDENT on just school administration costs and maintenance alone. So tackle these areas – again, mainly areas where shared services could greatly reduce overall costs and property taxes.
The other article, by New Jersey Policy Perspecitve notes that municipal property tax caps have been around for years now, and property taxes are largely driven by the mere fact that it is the sole source of local income in NJ (where other states may have local income or sales taxes instead).
In both instances, it is acknowledged that school budgets account for most of the property taxes, but there is another 40% of property taxes paid that go to municipal and county taxes. Additionally, services will be substantially and arbitrarily cut as a result of a hard cap. Libraries, bridges and road maintenance and repair (which, by the way, have already received a “D” grade in a recent report) and many other services will get the axe just to meet some arbitrary number.
Only by dealing with this in a responsible and intelligent manner will our property taxes be brought under control. Certain hard choices need to be made – but they should be made without using a bludgeon. Rather, taking a look at each municipality, each town, and each opportunity to reduce bloat and duplicate costs on a nonpartisan manner will go a long way to permanently addressing the property tax issue in New Jersey.
Anything else is political posturing – and poor posturing by “leaders” in both political parties.