The Property Tax Challenge for Ciattarelli

Ciattarelli

Jack Ciattarelli says he wants to “scream” when he hears former New Jersey residents are living in the Carolinas and paying $3,000 a year in property taxes on four-bedroom homes.

As he has appeared on a number of media outlets after securing the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Ciattarelli says what you’d expect a candidate to say – property taxes in New Jersey are too high!

This is not exactly breaking news.

The obvious challenge for Ciattarelli – like it’s been for many candidates from both parties before him – is to do something about it.

In contrast to some who seek the governorship, Ciattarelli, at least, is well familiar with the problem.

Property taxes fuel local government and Ciattarelli has been both a town councilman and a county freeholder (now commissioner).

The overall problem here is that “solutions” are easy to say, but almost impossible to implement.

Let’s begin with the basics.

We have too much local government in New Jersey – there are 565 municipalities, 599 school districts and 21 counties. And that’s putting aside such things as improvement and utility authorities.

As many have said previously, with so many towns and school districts maintaining their distinct police and administrative staff, costs quickly rise. And property taxes pay the tab.

This spectacle is fairly easy to see. Drive down a main road in this state for 15 miles and you can easily pass through four or five municipalities.

Simple logic suggests combining towns, or short of that, consolidating services.

But logic doesn’t always mesh with politics.

Just in Morris County, a location I know well, attempts to do just that have failed miserably – generally because of resident opposition.

These failed plans have included merging police in Mendham Borough and Mendham Township, contracting for an out of town police department to serve Mount Arlington and even a most audacious plan to merge Mount Arlington and Roxbury.

There have been some success stories – police in Chester Borough and Chester Township have been consolidated. But by and large, the public seems to like the idea of “home rule” even if it costs them money.

Another way to reduce property taxes is probably more unpalatable politically – scale back services.

Try that and see what happens. If a town sought to save a few bucks by ending recycling pick-ups, there likely would be a crowd of miffed residents at the next council meeting. Ditto if a school board tried to eliminate a sport or just about any extracurricular activity.

As frustrating as the topic is, voters expect a gubernatorial candidate to have ideas. And in truth, Phil Murphy seldom talks about property taxes and the need for bold action to lower them.

Ciattarelli in general has talked about school funding, which is where most of your property taxes go.

The school funding formula certainly needs reform, but even if it is made more equitable, the total amount of state aid going to schools may not increase; it may just be shifted around. That may lower property tax demands in some towns, but raise them in others.

Another option – at least on paper – is to review the state’s entire tax structure and consider removing property taxes as the main supporter of public schools. The downside of doing that would be that other taxes — sales, income etc. – likely would have to increase.

Ciattarelli, one hopes, will explain what his thoughts are.

But there is a sobering, if not cynical, reality here.

No magic wand is going to reduce property taxes.

That can’t happen unless we have fewer towns, more regionalization of services and maybe a different tax structure.

Candidates have to articulate a vision, but the public has to be willing to accept change.

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  • Donald Sico

    Yes, it’s hard, but we would still be better off with a Governor trying to do something about high property taxes than the incumbent who simply says if you don’t like high taxes, then move.

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