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Those in New Jersey who try – I mean, really try – to combine towns, or in the very least, share services deserve a special prize.
There are just so many obstacles to one of the few sure-fire ways to reduce property taxes, that is to reduce some of what property taxes support – local government and schools.
Opposition comes from entrenched local pols terrified at giving up their fiefdoms, residents who like seeing the town seal on their DPW trucks, employees afraid of losing jobs and sometimes even state law.
For more than four years, a committee has been looking at consolidating the towns of Roxbury and Mount Arlington in western Morris County. Roxbury is the larger of the two. Mount Arlington sends its students to Roxbury High School, so there already is a connection between the two.
Craig Heard, a Roxbury businessman and well-known Republican activist and fundraiser, heads the committee and hopes to get a referendum seeking support for the idea on the November ballot in both towns.
The committee’s research shows combining Roxbury and Mount Arlington would save about $100 million in property taxes over 11 years. That includes an annual savings of about $9.2 million plus the selling of assets, including a fire house, the Mount Arlington administration building,and schools that no longer would be needed.
The committee also hired an outside financial management firm to study consolidation. That group said annual savings could reach $11.8 million.
One notable conclusion was that no police jobs would be lost through consolidation. The departments would be simply combined and any cuts would come soon enough through attrition. The consultants also eyed significant education savings, noting that enrollment is decreasing in both towns. Roxbury, for instance, has about 700 fewer students now than it did eight years ago. And that trend is bound to continue as families on average have fewer children than they did a generation or so ago.
All signs were looking good for a fall referendum, but then a problem popped up over taxes.
If towns are combined, all property owners logically would pay taxes at the same rate.
Roxbury just revalued its property, which theoretically raises all property assessments to market level, or true value. But Mount Arlington has not revalued its property for at least a decade. That keeps assessments in Mount Arlington artificially low.
If the towns are combined, all taxpayers would pay a rate mostly based on Roxbury’s newly-assessed values, which on average could increase taxes in Mount Arlington.
This has Heard looking for help.
On Tuesday, he fired off an email to various state officials seeking what he termed, “creative thinking and expert input.” He raises the possibility of removing a town’s debt from the equalization process.
In short, he is asking for the state Department of Community Affairs to find a way to make consolidation work. And he needs answers soon to make the mid-August deadline to get the referendum on this year’s ballot.
On the surface, the state should be on Heard’s side.
Senate President Sweeney long has talked about consolidations and mergers to cut property taxes. And the governor last year named two “czars” to foster shared services around the state.
One of the annoying tendencies of government is to philosophically endorse something but then do nothing practically to make it happen.
Is that the case here?
We’re going to find out.
As for Heard, he says simply, “We’re not giving up.”