At what point will people say enough is enough with their outrageous tax bill in South Orange, specifically and Essex County, in general? After all the recent debates and discussions, the certified tax rate has been released showing an overall tax increase of 4% - increasing the average homeowner's tax bill by almost $600 this year to a total of $15,260.  Let me say that one more time - the average homeowner in South Orange now has a property tax bill over $15,000 each and every year.
 
The breakdown of your tax bill for 2011 is as follows:
  • The County portion of your tax bill went from .389 to .413 (a stunning 6% increase) 
  • The School portion of your tax bill went from 1.486 to 1.546 (a 4% increase) 
  • The Municipal portion of your tax bill went from .729 to .749 (a 2.7% increase - despite the Board only approving a 1.59% increase)
  • County Open Space remained at .015
  • Municipal Open Space remained at .01
 
The total tax rate in South Orange is now 2.733 per $100 of valuation.
 
While most people are seeing their incomes remain relatively flat and we continue to see the challenges every day of the ongoing recession, the taxpayers of South Orange are being told to support a 4% increase to their already excessive tax bill. To make matters worse, there were very clear options this year for both the School tax and Municipal tax increases to be much lower without any diminution in services: The School District recently received a $1M "rebate" from the state that could have been used for tax relief and the Municipality received a similar amount when the arbitrator's ruling for the Police union contract came in significantly less than was budgeted (and paid by taxpayers) over the past 3 years.
 
That savings could have EASILY been used for tax relief, but wasn't. In addition, no structural changes were made to the budget at all this year - rather small discretionary spending items (like a business recruiter, holiday decorations and downtown concerts) were cut this year, but will simply return to the budget next year. As a result, I voted "no" for the Municipal Budget and likewise voted "no" on the School Budget.
 

When the average South Orange homeowner already has a tax bill over $15,000, it is completely unreasonable and unsustainable to raise it by almost $600 each year - especially in light of the 2% CAP mandated by Governor Christie and the State of NJ. This budget crisis was further highlighted during the recent controversy over the retention of the CFO and Administrator. As I stated at the time, the financial terms (and length of the terms) that were proposed were simply not in the best interest of the taxpayers. Yet, no consideration on how the proposed deals would impact the budget was even discussed.  We must ensure that every expense is in the best interest of the community and does not have a detrimental impact on the budget.
 
We all moved to South Orange for many different reasons - including our housing stock, our proximity to NYC, our people and our sense of community.   South Orange continues to be a wonderful place to raise a family and have fantastic neighbors.  However, unless something is done to hold the line on taxes, our community will become far less desirable as a place for people to come to live or as a place people choose to stay. I continually hear this concern from residents on a very frequent basis.  However, not enough people come to our Budget Workshops or formally share their concerns when their taxes are raised 4%.  
 
I urge everyone to get more involved in the process and learn more about how YOUR money is being spent.  I share frequent updates on upcoming meetings via Twitter at @mgoldbergnj and the full Village Calendar is available online at http://southorange.org/calendarGovi/.  In the meantime, I will continue to scrutinize every expense we are asked to approve and will continue to vote "no" when I feel an expense is excessive or unnecessary. As always, I welcome your thoughts, input and participation in the process.  I can be reached via email at mgoldberg@southorange.org.