WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
The latest data on local property taxes out of Trenton from the Department of Community Affairs has both Democrats and Republicans blaming each other for the biggest annual property tax increase since 2007.
According to DCA's stats in 2010, the average residential property tax bill jumped by 4.1 percent. That means the average homeowner property tax bill was $7,576. Of course there is not a New Jersey town actually named "Average," so in hundreds of places the annual levy was much, much higher.
Out of the 566 New Jersey towns, Tavistock in Camden County has the dubious distinction of ranking number one, with an average property tax bill coming in at $20,565. In Essex County's town of Millburn, the average was over $19,000.
And of the state's 21 counties, Bergen County's homeowners paid the highest property taxes, followed by Morris and Essex Counties.
Democratic Majority Leader Joe Cryan jumped on the DCA stats out late Friday, blaming Governor Chris Christie's cuts to local education and the state's property tax rebates for the uptick.
"At least now we can stop the ridiculous myth that Gov. Christie didn’t raise taxes," wrote Cryan. “It’s now a proven fact that Gov. Christie gave New Jerseyans their highest property tax increases since 2007."
Cryan said there was likely to be more bad news on the municipal front. "It’s worth noting that these figures don’t show the negative impact of the Christie school activity taxes imposed on children and parents throughout our state. The numbers also don’t measure the ramifications of public safety layoffs and other cuts forced by his policies."
Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Governor Chrsitie, countered that the Democratically controlled legislature had acted only on five of 20 reform measures Chrsitie had proposed to help control the local property levies.
"Our response is that we are the first administration to meaningfully take action on the property tax problem, but our cap didn't go into effect until January 1 of this year," wrote Roberts. "The legislature has only acted on 5 of the 20 tool kit bills. Unacceptable."
The jury is indeed still out on the impact of a state imposed two percent property tax cap that just went into effect this January.
But even that cap based on a bi-partisan basis in the Legislature has some exemptions that are going to still wreck havoc with municipal balance sheets.
Not covered by the cap are the double-digit hikes in public employee health care costs, pension costs and debt service and finance charges owed for past municipal borrowing.
Two weeks ago the state's Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff sounded the alarm on another major challenge for local budget makers - a spike in local pension costs that he predicted would jump by 8.9 percent even "as the legislature continues to delay critical reforms."
In a press release from the New Jersey Department of Treasury the Christie Administration had some pretty grim numbers for local governments.
"The steep rise follows an even bigger 22 percent increase in the local pension bill for 2011. Combined, local taxpayers have been asked to put $3.6 billion into employee pension funds in 2011 and 2012, " wrote Sidamon- Eristoff."Without passage of the governor’s reform package, local taxpayers will put almost $1 billion more into public employee pension funds over the next five years.
Christie's proposals for public pension reform are not the only ones on the table. Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney also has a comprehensive plan to bend the cost curve for police, fire, teachers and state workers.
Throughout the state, local governments have already resorted to layoffs of police officers, firefighters, teachers and road maintenance crews. Those layoffs were part of a disconcerting January jobs report showing that New Jersey lost 13,000 jobs in total. A closer look shows that 7,100 of those lost jobs were in the private sector while close to 4,000 public sector jobs were at the state level and 2,600 in the municipal sector.