CAMDEN, NJ — Felix Moulier, 35, was one of hundreds of Camden residents whose eyebrow furrowed upon looking at property tax bills for the third quarter of 2020. For his part, Moulier had a 15% hike from last year — although the city’s average was roughly 10% (from 3.045% per $100 to 3.347%).
“I’m blessed that I could afford it, but I know many people in the city are not working because of the pandemic," said Moulier.
Camden resident’s tax bill payments fall into five buckets: municipal purpose, county payment, county library, county open space, and the school district. The city, which in some iteration has been state-controlled since 2002, works as a “collector” when it comes to said payments.
The tax rate — in this case its increase — is not decided upon by the mayor or the City Council.
In a sit-down interview at City Hall Mayor Frank Moran attributed the recent tax rate increase to the Camden City School District (CCSD) saying in May that it would need an additional $5 million to balance its budget. Camden schools, which the state has overseen since 2013, announced a tax levy increase that translates to an additional $150 a year for the averaged assessed residential property — which is approximately $56,000 in Camden.
However, Moran highlighted that the bills released this quarter were estimates based on what the city expects to tax residents during its transition period. On July 8, the local finance board unanimously approved the city’s plan to operate on a calendar year instead of a fiscal year.
That transition is now underway.
“That's an estimated rate…for conservative purposes, we had to establish our transitional budget,” Moran told TAPinto Camden. “When the taxes were due out, the county had not issued a certification yet. So essentially [the tax bills look like that] because Superintendent [Katrina] McCombs informed us that they need an additional $5 million. Our calculations have to be such that meet that number.”
Moran has been vocal about his opposition to the school district’s $5 million tax levy, simultaneously imploring the state to release $44 million in emergency aid — a request that McCombs said during Tuesday’s board meeting has been denied.
The city expects to introduce a six-month budget during its Aug. 11 City Council meeting, and subsequently adopt it in September. The budget would last until January, when another temporary budget will be passed, before one is finalized later in the year.
Moulier said he initially thought the higher tax payments were due to the city transitioning from a fiscal to calendar year. Upon learning city officials correspond the change to the school levy surge, he said it was difficult to square a lack of state response to Camden’s financial straits but understands many municipalities are in a difficult position.
Although Moulier gives the mayor credit for corresponding with residents on social media as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, he felt communicating information surrounding taxes and other such topics was as important.
“I went through Facebook and other social media to reach out to the mayor’s office, not to shine a spotlight or offend,” he said. “I just felt there was a lot of confusion and when you don’t communicate it can lead to theories. You can nip that kind of thing in the bud.”
The mayor said he expects to discuss the city’s property taxes via video in both English and Spanish in the near future.
“The bottom line is, as elected officials, we have to be responsible with the finances of the people in our trust,” Moran said. “We’ve always been successful in working with the state because they have been involved here in this government for decades, as well as the Board of Education.”
The mayor and Johanna Conyer, acting Director of Finance, said the city’s transition to a calendar year will bring with it a number of advantages.
“It is beneficial that will be in alignment with all our [state and federal] partners because it can be an accounting nightmare otherwise to access grants and other resources,” Conyer said.
Conyer also said a calendar year will help the city process transitional aid it gets from the state more easily. The transitional aid — the city's largest revenue stream outside of taxation — is provided to municipalities the state considers distressed due to monetary shortfalls.
That 3rd quarter tax bills saw a noticeable increase may be a precursor for worse to come, with McCombs also announcing Tuesday that the district has lost another $4 million of state aid it had been counting on.
“We have to make sure we’re very strategic with spending,” McCombs said over the phone.
When the district said it would pass a $391 million budget in May, layoffs were necessary. McCombs could not confirm whether the release of any more staff or school closures will be necessary as the CCSD looks to reassess its budget.
“That will be shared at our next budget meeting, we’re still strategizing and figuring that out within our finances,” McCombs added.
Paul Loftland, 54, has lived in Camden since 2010. He says he hopes the city would collaborate more with corporations based in Camden in order to lessen the burden on residents.
“Personally I think they’re benefits most from tax breaks given by the city and state, and it seems residents are paying for it,” Loftland said. “Where are the breaks for residents? A lot of houses in the area are still blighted. I’m a small investor with two properties and I just keep seeing my taxes go up. I pay more money but don’t get anything else out of it.”