On Second Anniversary of State's Tax Cap, Area Mayors Discuss Fiscal Changes

d2480f88811763ecac89_christie.jpg
Governor Chris Christie addresses the crowd during a recent town hall meeting in Westfield. Credits: Christy Potter Kass
d2480f88811763ecac89_christie.jpg

Two years ago today, Governor Chris Christie signed the two percent tax cap bill that would clamp down on how much municipalities could raise property taxes.

While tax bills that are smaller – or at least didn’t go up – may have elicited a sigh of relief from residents, municipalities have had to hone their focus on how to best stay under the cap while maintaining the level of services taxpayers have come to expect. Going over the cap would mean taking the budget before the voters for approval.

Today, area mayors say their towns have been adjusting to the new rules, although not without some pain along the way. Some municipal jobs were cut, those who have retired were not replaced, salaries and benefits have come under the microscope, and “shared services” has become the mantra as town officials try to figure out how to make it all work.

Sign Up for E-News

“It’s a good thing,” said Berkeley Heights Mayor Joe Bruno. “Something had to give. Capping taxes has made us take a closer look at how we deal with our employees, their benefits, and how we run the town in general. We have to watch our pennies a lot more now, but taxes couldn’t just keep going up.”

The problem, Bruno said, comes when a municipality has to look at areas like roads, bridges, sewers, and municipal buildings that could use some help.

“In Berkeley Heights, we have an aging infrastructure that needs to be addressed, and I’m not sure we’ll ever have or be able to borrow enough money to take care of it,” he said. “Towns that got their new town halls and police department headquarters and such rebuilt before the two percent cap went on are fortunate. It’s going to take some real creative financing for us to get something like that done now.”

Berkeley Height established a Capital Improvement Plan this year, which Bruno credits largely to the council president and vice president.

“It’s good to have a financially savvy council,” he said. “We do need to make sure every penny is spent wisely. We may go around and around sometimes about how to do it, but everybody is putting their thinking cap on and working in the best interest of the town.”

Summit Mayor Ellen Dickson called the tax cap a “psychological barrier.”

“We have not come close to the cap in the past couple of years,” she said. “We have stayed between one and two percent, and we’ve managed the city well within the cap.”

The problem in Summit, she said, are the Union County taxes, which are up more than 11 percent.

“The cap works for cities and for schools, but unfortunately, the county has found ways to increase taxes well above the cap,” she said.

Such issues are all part of what Bruno said is the education everyone in New Jersey is getting as municipalities adjust to the law.

“Yes, your taxes may have changed, but other things are going to have to change now as well,” Bruno said, adding that consolidation of some services and sharing of others has been deemed by many municipalities to be a viable solution.

“We need a real evaluation of what state, county and local governments should be doing,” he said. “We’re just scratching the surface. The governor has put a microscope on it, which is a good thing. There is no mystery here. If you want to control taxes, look at your payroll, look at benefits, look at duplication of services.  The truth is, we do have too many services. It goes back to colonial times when all these little towns were doing their own thing. It’s a different world now. We can’t be afraid of sharing services.”

Part of the issue, many municipal officials have asserted, is that most residents are in favor of sharing services – as long as it’s not their town that has to give anything up. And that, Bruno cautions, isn’t how it works.

“When you bring the idea of sharing services to the people, everyone wants to keep their own services,” he said. “It’s like Einstein’s theory of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If we want to keep property taxes down, we have to keep our options open. We can’t be afraid of sharing services.”

While most municipalities spent the first year after the new law went into effect dealing with the cap by reducing jobs – cutting part-time positions or through attrition and furloughs, for example – by the second year, it was time to dig deeper. That’s when taxpayers felt the pinch a little more.

After the October 2011 snowstorm dropped not only snow and ice but also leaf-heavy branches or entire trees on the area, residents piled branches by the curb and waited for the towns to cart them away.

And waited.

And waited.

“People would call us, frustrated and angry, and want to know why their branches hadn’t been picked up yet,” Bruno said. “I’d have to tell them that we only have one chipper and I don’t have the budget to buy another one, or to pay overtime to the crews. It’s an ongoing issue. People have to know that we’ll do everything we can to keep the level of service as high as possible, but under this new cap, we have to cut somewhere.”

In addition to privatizing some services that are not key, Dickson said Summit has been able to tighten its belt by relying more on available technology to communicate with residents. The city has a new website that allows people to report problems directly to city hall. Dickson herself is a huge proponent of social media, using Facebook and Twitter to get important, relevant news and information out to her constituency and save the city printing and postage costs.

Millburn also has saved money by keeping an eye on salaries and services, but Mayor Sandra Haimoff cautions that the township has likely not yet felt the full brunt of the new law.

“We had to look at reducing non-essential services, which led us into privatization of services like garbage collection, and doing away with the recycling yard in favor of curbside recycling,” Haimoff said. Such cost-cutting measures, along with more sharing of services, enabled the township to save $800,000 without losing services or personnel.

“But we also tell people not to look for a decrease in their taxes, we’re just keeping property taxes from escalating,” she added. “Right now it’s fine, but people are going to be upset when at some point we have to start dropping services in order to save money. That’s when the impact of the property tax cap will really be felt.”

TAP Into Another Town's News:

You May Also Be Interested In

Sign Up for E-News

Berkeley Heights

Pieces of Time: Applause Rings Out In Two Columbia Middle School Classrooms

February 23, 2018

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ – Thursday night, the mass murder of students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Wednesday, Feb. 14, seemed to be on everyone’s mind at the Board of Education meeting.

The board observed a moment of silence following the Pledge of Allegiance for the 17 people killed and 14 wounded in the shooting, as well as ...

Local Advisor Celebrates the 20th Anniversary of the Roth IRA

BASKING RIDGE, NJ - 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of the Roth IRA. First made available to American investors in 1998, a Roth IRA is an individual retirement account that is funded with after-tax dollars and provides tax-free growth and income for retirement.

In honor of this significant milestone, Walter Pardo, CEO/Certified Wealth Strategist at Wealth ...

New Providence High School Presents The Addams Family -Tickets are Now On Sale

February 23, 2018

The Addams Family, who first came to life in the 1960s television series, will come back to life and take the stage at New Providence High School in March in a comedic musical twist on the classic story and characters.  Morticia, Gomez, Wednesday, Grandma, Fester, and Lurch, along with new characters and a full cast of Addams Ancestors will bring the creepy, kooky, all together ooky ...

WFP Tax Partners Walks You Through 4 Step Tax Return Process

Over 80% of Tax Returns Have Errors or Missed Deductions. You're Probably Paying More Than Your Fair Share in Taxes

BASKING RIDGE, NJ - Tax returns certainly give a clear picture of the past year, but WFP Tax Partners believes it's wise to strategize for the current year to have a plan for moving forward. 

At your tax appointment, they ...

Reminder: Free Wellness Program for Union County Military Women

All Union County women with military service – veterans, active duty and reserve – are invited to join “Boots 2 Heels,” a free event designed to foster wellness and connect women with resources and guidance for empowerment. Boots 2 Heels will be held on Saturday, February 24 at the Westfield Armory, located at 500 Rahway Avenue in Westfield.

The event is free but ...

CSA's 5th Annual Pasta Dinner Fundraiser Set for Sunday

Is everyone ready to come together as a community and break bread to support the CSA? It's time for The Community Service Association of New Providence's 5th Annual Pasta & Meatball Dinner! This fun, family-friendly event will take place on Sunday, Feb. 25, at the DeCorso Community Center, 15 East Fourth Street, New Providence. Pasta, meatballs, and dessert will be served from 3-7 ...

Colleen Mahr Has Paid Her Dues, Earned Peoples’ Trust, and Left a Track Record of Success

February 20, 2018

Dear Editor:

As a 26-year-old Scotch Plains resident who cares more about the well-being of our town than about local politics, I am extremely disappointed that the Scotch Plains Democratic Committee leadership has decided to abandon Colleen Mahr in her run for Chair of the Union County Democratic Committee.

Mahr, who as Mayor of Fanwood for 15 years has worked closely with Scotch Plains ...

We Need More Women Like Colleen Mahr in Municipal, County and State Government

Dear Editor:

I’m proud to support Colleen Mahr for Chair of the Union County Democratic Committee  (UCDC) and am encouraging my Scotch Plains peers to join me.

I was a first time candidate wanting to make a difference in my hometown of Scotch Plains, when Mayor Mahr of neighboring Fanwood stepped in to help me campaign and win my election to be Councilwoman three years ago.

Democratic Party Would Be Making a Big Mistake by Not Recognizing Colleen Mahr's Talents

Dear Editor:

Mayor Colleen Mahr has been a valuable friend to the Township of Cranford. Whether it’s offering advice and assistance during devastating flood cleanup, supporting the Mayor's Council on the Rahway River, or her insight and assistance in meeting our affordable housing obligations, Mayor Mahr is always there for Cranford.

Colleen’s fairness and integrity is ...

Chatham Borough Police Chief Crosson has Retired; Captain Gibbons is Acting Commander

February 12, 2018

CHATHAM, NJ - Phil Crosson Jr., who has been a member of the Chatham Borough Police Department since 1992, retired from his position as the police chief on Feb. 1.

"It came on pretty quickly," Crosson said when reached by phone on Sunday. "I was on vacation for six weeks and I bought a business. I came back for one day and retired."

According to Crosson, ...

‘Reefer Madness’ Comes to Chatham Borough Council; Cannabis Advocates Make Pitch for Chatham Marijuana Shop

February 14, 2018

CHATHAM, NJ - A group of pro-cannabis activists came to the Borough of Chatham Council meeting on Monday night and used the public commentary portion of the meeting to ask the council to support a marijuana dispensary in town.

The advocates, who say they have attended more than 80 town meetings to inform about the benefits of medical cannabis, mentioned the 1936 movie "Reefer ...

Upcoming Events

Fri, February 23

Scherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary, Bernardsville

NJ Audubon: Volunteer Art Show!

Arts & Entertainment Green

Carousel_image_b59229b3972266545812_magnet_fundraising_auction_2018_flyer_0219

Fri, February 23, 6:30 PM

Union County Vocational Technical Schools, West Hall Cafeteria, Scotch Plains

Union County Magnet High School Silent Auction

Arts & Entertainment Food & Drink

Sat, February 24

Scherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary, Bernardsville

NJ Audubon: Volunteer Art Show!

Arts & Entertainment Green

Sat, February 24, 10:00 AM

Municipal Court Room/Council Chambers, BERKELEY HEIGHTS

Return Berkeley Heights Public Library's Books, ...

Other

Carousel_image_ebabe6d4e0eb6af7bda2_https---cdn.evbuc.com-images-40285364-230483587926-1-original

Sat, February 24, 3:00 PM

White Tiger Dojo, Berkeley Heights

White Tiger Dojo Hosts Trauma Response Seminar: ...

Health & Wellness

Sun, February 25

Scherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary, Bernardsville

NJ Audubon: Volunteer Art Show!

Arts & Entertainment Green

I've Always Wanted to be a Doctor...Or an English Teacher

Think about the impossibility of the task we lay in front of high school students.  In addition to getting good grades, filling up a resume, finding the right colleges and writing countless admissions essays they also need to decide on their life’s passion at 17 years old...or do they?

As a college admissions representative the first question most students would ask me was whether ...

Now That The Dust Has Settled…Smart Tax Moves In 2018

Now that the dust has settled, here are some smart tax moves to lower your taxes and/or avoid higher taxes/penalties in 2018. These steps may be especially helpful if you live in high property and high income tax states (e.g. New Jersey, New York, California) since state and local tax deductions are capped.  Unfortunately all these changes mean you’ll need more time and energy to ...