Medford voters reflect on their about-face on tax hike

When confronted with the possibility of having to contract for their own trash collection, a majority of voters in Medford Township opted to raise their already high taxes.
When confronted with the possibility of having to contract for their own trash collection, a majority of voters in Medford Township opted to raise their already high taxes. (APRIL SAUL / Staff)
Posted: April 22, 2012

Sandi Wright was adamant when she heard her conservative town government wanted permission to raise her municipal property taxes way beyond the limit Gov. Christie signed into law two years ago.

"I was a definite no," the 64-year-old accountant said Tuesday outside a bustling polling place in Medford Township.

Yet moments later, she voted yes.

The majority of voters in the woodsy, lake-dotted community did the unthinkable that warm, sunny day. They voted in favor of raising their own municipal taxes - by 25 percent.

"Good for them. Higher property taxes for Medford. Congratulations," Christie said at a news conference the next day. "If the people of Medford want to pay higher property taxes, that's their call. . . . I said I would vote no, but . . . this is a democracy."

While voters went to the polls, he urged them to stand firm against any tax increase that exceeded the state's 2 percent cap.

But Facebook, the popularity of the town's newly elected officials, a sex scandal, and the threat of losing municipal trash pickup played a bigger role in the outcome.

Asked why she changed her mind, Wright didn't hesitate. "I was very impressed with the guys," she said, referring to five political neophytes - all Republicans - who were swept into office in January, replacing other Republicans.

Former Mayor Chris Myers had resigned in a sex scandal, and four councilmen left office during a public uproar over alleged mismanagement.

Wright said she had changed her mind twice in recent weeks after reading lively exchanges on the "Medford NJ Voices" Facebook page, where residents debated the pros and cons of higher taxes. But the night before the vote, she heard the new council at an informational meeting explain the need for the increase.

"I felt they were very sincere," she said. "Medford was in such a mess."

Cathy McGill, a retired saleswoman who has lived in town for 43 years, voted yes for similar reasons: "We've finally voted the people out who got us into this problem, and I think we really need to give the new people a chance."

Mayor James "Randy" Pace would not accept any congratulations the next day. The "win," he said, goes "to the people that took the time to inform themselves." The Town Council was "humbled by the idea the people trust us, and it's not lost on us," he said.

At the start of the year, the town faced a $5.7 million budget hole - much higher than many neighboring towns - and the new leaders began cutting costs. Police were laid off, the recreation department was axed, public works was trimmed, and council salaries were nixed. But there was still a gap, Pace said, and without a tax increase, the town couldn't pay for municipal trash pickup.

A defeat would mean residents would have to contract with their own trash haulers.

"You should see the amount of leaves I have," said an 81-year-old voter, owner of a lakefront property full of tall oaks, who declined to give his name. "I don't know how I could afford to have them all taken away unless we all pay for it as a community."

Other voters said they, too, dreaded the thought of having to manage their own trash disposal. "The logistics would be difficult," said Ed Cain, a 58-year-old engineer. "Our taxes are horrible, but we'll surrender and pay them."

More than 6,000 people - considered heavy turnout for a special election - cast ballots on the question, which passed with 57 percent of the vote. Voters in this town of 23,000 agreed to a $344 increase on property assessed at the town average of $333,000, on the municipal portion of their bill. The town's proposed budget is $21.8 million.

"This is a big deal; let's be honest," Pace said. "Last year the vote was 5-1 against an increase."

The ballot question last year also called for a 25 percent increase in municipal taxes. But back then, residents distrusted their local government, they said. Several voters interviewed at the polls this year said they had nixed the increase last year but reversed their stance last week.

"I felt they were trying to manipulate the public last year. But now I have a better understanding of what happened with the money," Tracy Hofstrom, 50, an assistant school principal, said, explaining her new affirmative vote.

Township Manager Christopher Schultz said previous councils did not raise taxes for five years but also did not control spending, leading to a budget crisis. The "yes" vote, he said, "puts us in a better financial position.. . . But we still have a lot of work to do" to control costs.

Deputy Mayor Frank Czekay said an alliance of homeowners associations in town "did a fantastic job getting the information out." Fliers and word of mouth helped with the turnout, he said.

Lawrence Township, the only other township in the state that held a referendum, registered defeat, with 66 percent of the vote.

Officials in that Mercer County community said they needed a 12 percent increase in the municipal portion of the tax bill, which would have brought an average $145 tax increase.

Now they say they don't have the money to pay for trash pickup and are considering imposing a $336 annual user fee on residents.

"It's more because we have to build into the fee an amount for the uncollected portion" when residents fail to pay for it, Township Manager Rich Krawczun said.

Earlier this month, State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said he would introduce a bill to stop towns from instituting such fees to circumvent the 2 percent cap.

On a radio show last month, Christie told voters in Lawrence and Medford to "call their bluff," saying town leaders would have to find other things to cut besides trash if the referendums failed.

Medford voter Linda Buchler, a day-care owner, said she was not worried about paying for her own trash collection. "It's a lot cheaper," she said. "Our taxes have gone up enough."

Pace acknowledged the anxiety level for some residents has "gone up because we voted for a tax increase and they're already struggling financially."

But for the most part, he said, there was calm in town. "Medford is fixing its problems," he said.


Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779- 3224, jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow @JanHefler on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/ BurlcoBuzz.

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