Are you aware that since the year 2000 our senior population in South Orange has shrunk 20% or that, for every three residents age 60, two will be living elsewhere within 10 years time? How is this costing our community and what, if anything, can we do about it?
Just think, the village ranks in the 99th percentile statewide in loss of seniors over the last 14 years while, in less time than that, the number of seniors in nearby Somerset County soared 25 percent. As a South Orange native, I have always been proud of our diversity, and I was raised to think that the more we establish deep roots here the stronger we grow as a community. Yet, in contrast to those guiding principles, every 12 days we witness another senior depart South Orange, never to be replaced.
SOCIAL BENEFITS: Among the most law-abiding citizens, seniors also are ranked by social researchers as the most civically engaged -- more active as volunteers, church- and synagogue-goers, and members of social and humanitarian organizations -- and so vital to that informal network of family, friends and community that knit the social fabric.
FINANCIAL BENEFITS: Seniors, along with near seniors ages 60 to 64, save South Orange taxpayers millions and millions of dollars annually. It all has to do with the largest portion of your taxes, nearly 60 percent, going to our school district, where the cost of educating a child now runs to more than $18,000 a year. You see, the loss of seniors and property tax increases are very connected, though neither the trustees nor the board of education speak about that, least of all with each other. Consider that over a recent five year span our schools gained 500 in enrollment. The cause of that increase, most certainly as far as South Orange is concerned, has more to do with seniors and near seniors selling their homes than any other single factor by far. At $18,000 per pupil a year, the tax repercussions are staggering.
SUPPORTING OUR STUDENTS: Let me explain how the school district has a big stake in reversing the senior exodus. You see, school revenue increases are not automatically pegged to enrollment; instead, whatever budget the board of education approves (a 2% cap limits those increases) must suffice, whether enrollment has remained the same or has grown. Since recently it has increased by 500 students over five years, that means more students to educate and therefore less money available per student. As enrollment continues to grow, this demands not just more belt-tightening and spreading things thin, but new construction, witness the current $3 million expansion at Maplewood Middle School (News-Record frontpage, 8/21), a direct result of enrollment increases. Simply put, stable enrollment means more financial resources for our children that are presently enrolled in the district. I need not mention that stabilizing enrollment will become an even more important goal the budget cap is lifted, a situation in which more senior homeowners will have to leave town, enrollment will increase even more, and families with kids will also see their taxes go up more than they do now.
The board of ed and the trustees must work jointly to retain senior homeowners and stabilize enrollment, neither problem can be solved by the two groups acting separately. While the fact that trustees are no longer represented when the board of ed votes on the school budget does not foster confidence at a time more cooperation is needed, not less, it is crucial that the two boards mount the see-saw together if our community is to maintain its crucial balance of young and old. Better still, let’s get the zoning and planning boards involved in devising more comprehensive solutions to the senior homeowner exodus. After all, the fact that South Orange is trending more transient is a result of trustees and planners and zoners teaming up for construction of huge apartment complexes, which brings in more persons who will have shorter stays here, while those who have spent much of their lives in the village depart in quiet frustration.
Surely the elected officials on both boards need no reminder that they represent all of South Orange, not just one portion, and that what happens to one group necessarily has a ripple effect. If, for example, our seniors are finding South Orange more and more unaffordable, that bodes ill for all residents, including our kids, in the same way that constant “for sale” signs by senior homeowners lower not just their home values but those of all in town (law of supply and demand).
HALFWAY THERE: Much of what it takes to get seniors to stay and achieve the sizeable tax savings that accrue are, thankfully, already in place: a train to New York attractions, a vibrant and walkable downtown, beautiful parks and recreation, a thriving arts scene, top flight medical care. Still, we must do more. Superficial attempts at helping seniors, such as providing more downtown park benches, are the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig.
THE BOTTOM LINE: I ask you to keep our seniors in mind as you consider what can be done to help long-time residents age in place where their roots run deep, and where they have the capacity to help build a more diverse, civically engaged, and affordable South Orange, and, in addition to all that, one that is more supportive of our students presently enrolled in the school district. Circle Sunday, Oct. 26, on your calendar, won’t you? That is the date of a “Senior Citizens Town Hall Meeting,” a senior forum being held from 2 to 5 p.m. at SOPAC, when the board of trustees and village department heads will hear comments and respond to questions from seniors, family members, those nearing their senior years, and anyone else who would like to speak out. The express purpose of this first-ever event is to give everyone a chance to address our elected officials on anything that has to do with seniors residing here.
Frank Franzonia, the author, is a member of the Senior Citizen Advisory Committee of the South Orange Board of Trustees.