Editor’s note: This is the third in a series about the forum held at Stangl Stage here last week with candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
FLEMINGTON, NJ – The state’s property taxes are the highest in the nation, and they were also the target of the gubernatorial candidates who gathered here last week in a forum to discuss the issues facing Garden State voters.
The forum sponsored by Progressive Hunterdon Democrats featured three Democratic gubernatorial candidates and spokespersons for two others.
Debbie Wisniewski spoke on behalf of her husband Assemblyman John Wisniewski.
“There are nearly 1,400 different forms off government all with the authority to tax,” she said. “If we truly serious about property tax reform, then we need to get serious about ... consolidation.”
Wisniewski said that in the history of the state, consolidation has only actually happened three times, with the merging of the Princetons the most recent.
When merging municipalities, their differing tax rates are an impediment to gaining voter support, Wisniewski said. For that reason, she said the state has a role “to level the playing field and make it easier for two communities to consolidate.”
But Wisniewski cautioned that there is no “one size fits all” solution to reducing the size of government, and that increasing the use of shared services is another approach.
“Consolidation is not going to happen in this state because the public doesn’t want it,” said state Sen. Ray Lesniak. “But we have to save taxpayer dollars. What we have to do is have a comptroller at DCA (Department of Community Affairs) and education that’s going to show, with a carrot and stick, here’s how you can save money.”
Lesniak bemoaned that the state employs custodian supervisors who supervise themselves and has truant officers for four-year-olds.
“There are hundreds of millions of administrative dollars that go out the window and never get into the classroom,” he said.
Bill Brennan agrees with Lesniak that consolidation isn’t going to happen “under current the paradigm.
“Everybody wants those other towns to consolidate,” Brennan said, “but they’re all happy with their town ... You’ve got to have a carrot and a stick.”
Brennan favors having the state paying for all public education. Under his plan, to receive the funding, local school districts would be required to join a county school board.
Districts that prefer to not join with the county school board would be allowed to keep their own – but with a catch.
“Pay your own property taxes and fund your own schools,” Brennan said.
Phil Murphy spokesman Mike Beson has served as a mayor and a school board member.
“Everybody wants to hold on to their piece of the pie,” Beson said, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities. He cited Lake Como, which had been known as South Belmar, and the town of Belmar, who are now working to have one police department.
“That’s simple,” Beson said. While it can hurt public employees, “No one has to lose their jobs,” he said. Relying on attrition can be part of the answer, and public officials must “figure out a way to get that done.”
“Municipal consolidation has to happen,” Mark Zinna said, “but it doesn’t have to happen the same way throughout the whole state.”
Saving tax dollars through consolidation is not as urgent in less populated areas, Zinna said.
But he cited Bergen County – the state’s most populated county - as a more urgent example. It has less than 1 million residents, he said, compared to the 9 million who live in New York City.
Yet Zinna said there is more fire equipment in Bergen than the entire five boroughs in New York.
“Find a way to consolidate, or risk some state aid,” he said.
The forum was moderated by Steve Chernoski, a Lambertville resident who teaches sixth- and eighth-grade leadership and human rights in the Millburn School district. He is also a reporter for the New Hope Free press and the creator of New Jersey: The Movie.