If you want to whip an audience into a frenzy in New Jersey, bring up property taxes.
Within five minutes of greeting the crowd at a town hall last week, Governor Chris Christie landed on the surefire crowd-pleaser, taking credit early for the two-percent property tax cap he signed last July.
“People said it would work. Now the early returns are in,” Christie told a town hall in Jackson, New Jersey last week. Out of 566 towns in New Jersey, just 14 opted to ask voters to approve a higher rate. That’s the rightful place for the decision, he told the friendly audience at a retirement community in Jackson, New Jersey.
“I want to put the power in your hands to make that decision, take it out of the hands of politicians that have screwed this up so badly over the past thirty years that we’re in the spot we’re in," he said.
Christie speech went on to chastise the "do-nothing" legislature, in contrast to his "reform agenda."
But the story is a little more complicated in Brick Township, along the Jersey Shore. It's one of the 14 towns asking for more than two percent higher taxes. It's asking residents to approve a budget that exceeds it by $8 million, the biggest increase of all the towns.
It’s a big ask, and the town is giving residents a stark choice: pay the higher taxes, or the town will stop collecting your trash.
The question goes right at the heart of the budget fights being fought in towns across the country. Resentful taxpayers feeling exploited and angry after year after year of increases, while the local unions have their backs up after Wisconsin and Governor Christie’s persistent hammering. A referendum vote on Wednesday is forcing residents to pick a side, and some feel boxed in by a cap that was supposed to lighten their load.
Brick is an unlikely setting for this showdown over the taxes and spending. It sits in Ocean County, a Republican stronghold in the left-leaning state, where Chris Christie won in 2009 and John McCain won the year before that. The town itself has a Republican mayor, and not a single Democrat on its seven-member council.
And when local budgets have gone to voters before, they haven’t fared well. Eight of the last ten local school budgets were voted down. But in that case, the budget goes back to council, where members make final adjustments but have ultimate authority on the final budget.
In this case, the implications of the vote are clearer cut. Brick is asking its residents if it can exceed the cap by $8 million. Layoff notices are already out to if the vote goes down Twenty-nine police officers and the entire Department of Public Works will be cut – hence the end to trash pick-up in town.
Town business administrator Scott Pezarras said the extreme measures are many years in the making. For the three previous years – but not this year – Brick had to absorb cuts of state aid, and it’s spent down surplus funds and already tapped one-time money from new liquor license sales or property sales.
“It’s been a cumulative problem,” Pezarras said. “Now we don’t have any more of those one-time revenue shots to utilize.”
Still, the math is daunting for property owners in the town. The referendum asks voters to authorize voters to approve the budget that exceeds the cap by 12 percent. The impact on the actual tax rate shows the rate will increase the tax rate by more than 24 percent.
On the other side of the ledger are consistently climbing costs, something Pezarras said the state should do more to alleviate.
“We have a toolbox. We don’t have many tools in it right now,” he said, referring to Christie’s promised “toolkit” of new laws to help towns save money, many of which haven’t passed the legislature.
The New Jersey League of Municipalities echoes that concern. League president Bill Dressel says neither Christie nor the legislature have not followed through with other policy changes to lower costs for towns, like lowering pension and health benefit costs at the local level, which draw the ire of unions.
“There’s going to be some bloodletting to get these through,” Dressel admits, and he’s not hopeful. “With the elections getting closer and closer, it’s going to be more difficult to deal with these issues.”
Christie and Democratic Senate Majority Stephen Sweeney traded barbs last week about the status of cost-saving legislation for municipalities, but the governor’s staff maintained that negotiations continue to be “productive.”
But Dressel doesn’t mince words about the impact in the interim.
“It has basically perpetuated a fraud on the public, because they said in essence that they were going to deal with these issues, and they didn’t, and it’s the mayor and governing bodies who have to take the heat, because they made promises that they broke.”
Of course, for the workers who have received layoff notices already in Brick, it doesn’t feel like they’ve got much protection.
Michael Bevacqua, the president of Brick’s police union and a resident of Brick, sounds weary from the relentless spotlight of the Christie administration.
“With the economy, and with everything going on with the governor, hopefully as things turn around, people will realize that we’re not those bad people that we’re being made out to be,” Bevacqua said. “We’re really good people, and behind those people they see on the street are families and good people.”
Two of the unions representing Brick employees have agreed to concession. Bevacqua’s union has not, but he said they recognize they’re negotiating in a different political environment.
“I think we all know that things are not the way we were,” he says. “And their expectations are nothing crazy.”
But another police union leader, Jerry DeCicco, said the town is giving him a false choice with the up or down vote. He’s the president of the police union in Jersey City, but lives and votes in Brick. He said local unions and town leaders there could do more to lower costs.
“I’m pretty outraged, to be honest about it,” he said. “They’re not pouring through the budget. They’re not doing audits. They’re not looking for other creative ways to save money in this town. Instead, they’re abrogating their responsibilities, and they’re trying to throw it on the taxpayers.”
The pro-referendum vote does have visible support in Brick township. A local group has organized that’s running newspaper ads and dotted town streets with red-and-white signs that declare “Vote Yes: Save Our Services.”
That was not the sentiment, though, at the town council meeting last week, where resident after resident took to the microphone to ask how Brick had gotten itself into this funding predicament.
“I think it’s not only unfair, but totally wrong,” Bernard Riley, a retired resident, angrily told the council while it took public comments. He accused the town of using scare tactics to pass the budget. “For the life of me, I don’t think any of you have the political will that they have to find somebody to come and pick up their trash. You’d be the laughing stock of New Jersey.
“I can assure you, Mr. Riley, that if this referendum fails, you will be contacting a private garbage contractor to haul your garbage away,” Council President Brian DeLuca answered back.
“And I’ll have 1,200 bucks to do it with,” Riley snapped back.
Others reacted with resignation. As she left the meeting that had stretched past 10 o'clock, Martha Lazzari said she was heartbroken by what she saw as the decline of her town.
“I like my garbage man,” she said, noting that the town’s picked up her trash since she moved to the town as a young bride 45 years ago. Now she’s a widow, and she said her income’s declined by half since her husband’s death. “I’m fortunate because I have been able to pay my bills, but who’s going to care at the town council meeting when I can’t?”
The tax increases have to stop, she said, so she’s voting against the referendum, and she doesn't think she's alone.
“I think it’s going to fail just because people are angry. They feel they’ve been duped," she said.
For his part, Jerry DeCicco hasn’t decided how he’ll vote. But he does know he doesn’t like the cap’s impact on his town.
“The experiment seems to be failing at this point. I don’t have an answer to it, but at this point, it’s not working,” DeCicco said.