Frustration Over County Tax Picture Continues in Suburban Union County, But Officials Dealing with the Situation See No Magic Bullet Available in the Current System

Credits: TAP Staff

SUMMIT, NJ - Some Summit officials have called for the dissolution of county government, while Berkeley Heights will be placing an issue on the ballot this fall asking residents whether they want to secede from Union County and join neighboring Morris County.

Still other suburban Union County officials have suggested that their areas should have a greater voice in county government either through the election of more freeholders from suburban areas or changing the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders from a completely at-large body to one with some members elected in districts that represent all areas of the county.

Those fighting to change the at-large system say the greater combined populations in larger urban centers like Elizabeth and Plainfield mean that smaller suburban areas often are left unrepresented.

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The issue driving the movement, which is not a new one, is county taxes. Residents and officials in the more affluent communities in western Union County believe they are being unfairly asked to carry a larger portion of the burden to pay for county taxes than those in the less-affluent, more urban communities.

Some figures would seem to bear this out. Communities like Summit, Berkeley Heights and Westfield, for example, have seen double-digit or near-double-digit increases in their county taxes in each of the last three years.

However, this may be more a function of the high property values in the Hilltop City and neighboring communities than favorism toward the county’s urban areas.

Under the New Jersey system of property tax equalization, in order in treat varying communities in each county the same, the overall assessed valuation of properties in a municipality is factored against the “true” or “market” to produce an equalization ratio. This ratio is applied against the overall county tax levy to determine each community’s share of the tax load.

According to the New Jersey Table of Equalized Values, certfied on October 31, 2012 for use beginning January 1, 2013, Summit, with a total equalized property value of $6,857,036,524, has a ratio of 45.31 of its assessed value compared to market value. Berkeley Heights, with property values of $3,181,901,021, has a ratio of 55.79. Westfield, although coming in with a ratio of 26.14, has property values totaling $7.175,440,047.

However, Elizabeth, with values totaling $6,731,471,888, has a ratio of 13.35, while Plainfield had a ratio of 47.61 on values of only $2,611,489,777, and Union, with a total value of $6,380,153,648, had a ratio of only 16.19.

When these figures come together, however, they may produce different rankings in the amount of county taxes paid.

According to Union County Tax Assessor Christopher Duryee, Summit ranked third in 2012 in amount of taxes paid, falling behind Westfield and Elizabeth and one notch ahead of Union.

Summit City Administrator Christopher Cotter agrees that the property tax equalization system is a way of “rationalizing” values among Union County’s 21 often widely differing municipalities whose valuation dates may be quite different. While some communities have undergone recent overall revaluations many have not done so for years.

Summit, for example, has not had a citywide revaluation since 1993.

However, while a citywide revaluation might help Summit residents get a better idea of the “true” or “market” value of their properties, it might not bring the great savings in county taxes for which many are hoping. Because of fluctuations in the real estate market in intervening years property values may have increased, decreased or remained the same, according to Cotter.

“After a revaluation you could be paying more in county tax depending on whether the equalized value was higher (pay more) or lower (pay less) compared to the town’s value from the previous non-revalued year,” Duryee noted.

However, Cotter said, the picture is not quite the same when you look at the amount of money paid by local residents to fund their own services.

For example, the residents of Elizabeth, which receives a great deal of state aid to run its schools, had a cost per pupil of $1,872 last year, compared to $7,750 for Summit and $6,477 for Berkeley Heights.

The Summit administrator said he can understand the frustration of suburban officials because, this extra state school aid means cities like Elizabeth have a relatively greater amount of tax load left to meet other needs, while the wealthier suburbs that receive less school aid may have to limit other community services to pay for higher quality schools.

In addition, according to Cotter, individual residents, although they may pay higher taxes because of the higher value of their properties, may not have as great a value in other assets as it is believed.

Some thus may feel “house rich” but “cash poor.”

Of course, if the bottom line on the county budget were smaller, many officials correctly argue, the county tax burden would be much lighter for all.

Morris County, for example, has a zero tax increase for 2013 and has cut spending by $2.3 million.

Union County’s overall budget will increase about 3.4 percent this year with an overall increase of 4.2 percent in taxes. Although the average increase has been projected at about $120 per property owner, property valuations may make that amount higher or lower among the 21 municipalities.

Morris County, of course, has about 31,000 fewer residents than Union County and its communities do not, by and large, have the social welfare needs of larger and less-affluent communities like Elizabeth and Plainfield.

The Alternative Press attempted to ascertain whether the tax-equalization picture made a difference between the two counties, but Morris County Tax Administrator Ralph Meloro did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Cotter, however, believes there might be some credence to the belief that doing away with county government might be the answer.

“Places like Connecticut have tried it and maybe it is worth exploring,” he said.

The Summit administrator also said funding services with a source other than property taxes, as has been suggested many times in New Jersey, might be the answer.

As it stands, localities have few ways of paying for services, other than taxing property owners. 

Also, more and more neighboring communities are sharing services and some, like Summit, take up some of the slack with items like hotel taxes. 

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