N.J.'s local tax bills keep spiraling upward

Interactive map: Tax rates and household incomes in South Jersey
Interactive map: Tax rates and household incomes in South Jersey
Posted: October 22, 2012

Ted Marvel pays $4,900 in annual property taxes on his 1,000-square-foot home in the heart of Collingswood.

In fact, his monthly tax bill - $407 - is starting to rival what he pays in principal and interest on his mortgage. Said Marvel: "They're going to meet soon."

In the new millennium, New Jersey's property taxes, the highest in the nation, are exploring new heights.

"It's astronomical," said Marvel. "It's crazy." That, too, his Garden State neighbors affirm.

Even as incomes have dropped (4.4 percent), and overall taxable value has fallen in a third of the towns, an Inquirer analysis showed that from 2000 to 2011, average tax bills in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties rose 44 percent. And that's adjusted for inflation. The average bill jumped from $3,964, to $5,691.

Bill Dressel, longtime president of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, was surprised at the figure.

"I thought it would be a little higher," he said.

The Christie administration, which took office in 2010, blames the increases on "unrestrained spending, overgenerous benefits, and the expansion of government at the local and state level," said spokesman Michael Drewniak. He said spending caps and pension-plan changes already had reduced local government costs. Property taxes in the three counties did decline 4.5 percent from 2010 to 2011.

In the most recent National Tax Foundation survey, New Jersey ranked No. 1 for state and local taxation as a percentage of income - 12.2 percent. Pennsylvania came in No. 10, at 10.1 percent. The Tax Foundation study was based on 2009 data, and it plans to update its survey Tuesday.

New Jersey's dubious distinction was driven largely by the real estate levies.

"They're astounding," said Janice Potts, former resident of a place she still loves, Haddonfield, which had South Jersey's highest annual average tax bill, $12,282 in 2011. She sliced her bill by more than $10,000 by buying a home of similar value in a place not commonly viewed as a tax refuge: Philadelphia.

"They're terrible," agreed Edward Borden, a Haddonfield commissioner who pays almost $16,000 in annual taxes on a $595,000 home on Overhill Road. That's a steep price, even for a tony community with an elite public school system.

On average, New Jersey property taxes consumed 7.8 percent of median income in the 2008-10 period, according to the Tax Foundation. That was double the Pennsylvania figure.

Why are Jersey's real estate levies in the stratosphere?

The answer is complicated, but one reason is that much of the cost of school, town, and county governments in New Jersey is bundled into the real estate levy.

And just about everything in Jersey, it seems, is more expensive.

About half of all New Jersey's state and local tax revenue is generated by the property tax, compared with less than 30 percent in Pennsylvania, which has a more varied tax menu.

Property owners complain that the high taxes are hurting their real estate values. They may have a point: In the most recent Inquirer survey, home prices fell 29 percent in South Jersey from 2007 to 2011, compared with a 18 percent decline in the Pennsylvania suburbs.

Another reason for the staggering property taxes in the Garden State: New Jersey is a high cost-of-living state. That translates to higher salaries for public employees. The average pay for 575,000 state and local government employees is the second-highest in the nation, about $65,000 a year - 25 percent higher than Pennsylvania's - according to census data. That's similar to the differences in median incomes between the two states.

Public education is more expensive in New Jersey. In the Census Bureau's 2009-10 survey, per-pupil spending was $16,841, No. 2 in the nation. Pennsylvania's was a middle-of-the-pack $12,995. The local share of the Garden State's education bill, 55.6 percent, also was No. 2 in the country.

As in Pennsylvania, wealthier towns and school districts receive limited state aid, thus the tax burdens fall on the shoulders of property owners. In the poorer towns that do receive more aid, taxes are high anyway because the tax bases are paltry.

"There's no fat in here," said Tom Harper, mayor of tiny Wrightstown, Burlington County, where taxes have jumped an inflation-adjusted 50 percent since 2000. Harper, who is paid $7,800 a year and makes his living running a gas station and garage, said the town has only four full-time employees.

"The state cut our funding back," he added. "We have to do more with less."

Dressel, the municipal league’s executive director, blamed Trenton for holding on to key tax revenues that were supposed to lower property levies in the towns. “If the towns received their fair share of the revenues that rightfully belong to us,” he said. “We think we’d be able to provide property tax relief.”

"We've been forced to cut so much in the last few years," said Esther Pennell, business manager of the Clearview Regional High School District, in Harrison Township, Gloucester County. "We are down to the bare bones."

She said that the district has tried various strategies to trim health costs: "How many times can you switch brokers?"

School, town, and county officials estimate that 75 percent of their budgets are locked in contractually negotiated wages and benefits, giving them limited wiggle room to reduce costs without resorting to layoffs. In Pennell's district, salaries and benefits consume $24.3 million of the $33.4 million annual budget.

Camden County has reduced its workforce by 30 percent in the last decade, said County Administrator Ross G. Angilella, and the recession has compounded the county's funding woes.

For example, the county has counted on up to $15 million annually from fees leveled on real estate sales. In the last year, that figure has plummeted to $2 million, clear evidence of the real estate slump.

Investment income, typically yielding $3 million to $6 million annually, dropped to $76,000 last year.

"It's been five years of a world of hurt in the economy," he said.

Borden and others believe that New Jersey's best hope for reducing property taxes rests with finding ways for communities to share services, such as police and fire. Theoretically, at least, the mergers would produce an economy of scale and erase some administrative salaries. Christie has been pushing a proposal for a consolidated Camden County police department.

"We just have more government than anyone else I know," said Haddonfield's Borden. (Pennsylvania actually has far more towns, while New Jersey has more school districts.)

"Sharing of services makes a lot of sense," said Dressel. "It's something that should be at least discussed. It might be a win-win situation."

"We have duplicative services for every little town," said Marvel, and he was including his town, Collingswood, in that mix. "Once you have a certain amount of bureaucratic momentum, that's hard to stop."

As bad as the taxes are, Marvel isn't moving. Since he works and pays wage taxes in Philadelphia, as a program analyst for the University of Pennsylvania, he gets a break on his state income-tax bill.

When he calls the police, they come right away. His trash disappears without fail.

"Collingswood is a great town," said Marvel.

Janice Potts feels the same way about her former town, Haddonfield.

"It's a great school system," she said. "It's a safe town. From our perspective, that was the perfect place to be."

But she said that for years she told her two children, once they graduated from high school, "There's no point in being here."

The second one graduated in June 2011, and the Pottses were gone in July.

This story was updated on Oct. 22


Compare New Jersey property taxes with an interactive graphic at www.philly.com/njtax


Contact Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.

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