Assembly Democrats yesterday assailed Gov. Chris Christie for an 18.6 percent increase in net property taxes over the past three years, but Christie’s community affairs commissioner said long-term savings and cuts in overall tax rates are more important.
Community Affairs commissioner Richard E. Constable III told the Assembly Budget Committee that the 2.4 percent growth in property taxes in 2011 and 1.6 percent rise last year were the smallest statewide hikes in 20 years and an improvement over an "increase of 70 percent in the 10 years before Governor Christie took office."
But Democratic committee members disputed Constable’s view, citing a New Jersey Spotlight analysis showing that net property taxes -- the net cost of property taxes to the average homeowner earning about $70,000 after rebates are factored in -- jumped three times as much in Christie’s first three years than in Democrat Jon Corzine’s final three years in office.
“Net property taxes in New Jersey increased 18.6 percent in Gov. Chris Christie’s first three years in office, compared to just 6 percent in the three years before he became governor,” said Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen). “The average residential property tax bill is higher than it has ever been.”
“I’m all for claiming victory where we can, but the pain is still there on those property tax bills,” Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) said, accusing the Christie administration of “misleading” the public on its property tax accomplishments. “
Burzichelli noted that more than 80 percent of New Jerseyans received property tax rebates in 2008 when all homeowners earning up to $150,000 were eligible for rebates that averaged more than $1,100, compared to average rebates of $407 paid to non-senior homeowners making a maximum of $75,000 today.
“Direct property tax relief has not been a priority of this administration,” Burzichelli said, noting that rebate payments to tenants that reached a maximum of $860 for senior citizens and $350 for non-seniors under Corzine were eliminated in Christie’s first budget and never restored.
He added that the $445 million in municipal aid cut by Christie when state revenues plunged in his first year has never been restored, “resulting in a $1.78 billion loss to municipalities over the course of four budgets. Inevitably, this trickles down to affect property tax bills because towns have to find the money elsewhere.”
Constable, Christie’s community affairs commissioner, dismissed Democratic criticisms after the hearing, particularly the comparisons of Christie’s record with Corzine, whom the Republican governor has repeatedly attacked during his reelection campaign this year.
“What about pension payments?” Constable demanded, asserting that Christie’s pension overhaul would save municipalities $540 million this year. “Corzine put almost $3 billion into property tax programs the year before he had to run for reelection, but the state couldn’t afford it.”
Corzine’s predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Richard ”Codey put $1.3 billion into property tax relief programs the year before Corzine came in, and that’s about what we’re putting in now,” Constable said.
During the hearing, Constable contended that Christie’s pension and health benefits overhaul, the 2 percent cap, and other initiatives that held down the increase in total property taxes to 8.3 percent over the past three years, compared to 12.8 percent in Corzine’s last three years, are the systemic, long-term changes that matter the most.
He argued that comparing Corzine’s rebates to the direct property tax credits provided by Christie was “like comparing apples to oranges” because the direct credits actually lowered property tax bills, while the rebates “were just checks coming from the government that had nothing to do with property tax bills.”
Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) laughed off Constable’s effort to make a distinction between rebate checks and direct property tax credits.
“If you go to the [Department of Community Affairs] website, they’re listed together as rebates,” Prieto said in an interview, referring to the DCA data that formed the basis of the NJ Spotlight analysis. “It’s 100 percent the same thing. If you’re a New Jersey resident, you don’t care if it’s a check or a credit. It’s property tax relief.
“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. The bottom line is when you look at the average property tax bill in New Jersey with rebates and credits added in, it has gone up almost $1,200 since the Christie administration took over,” he said, referring to the increase in net property taxes from $6,244 in 2009 to an estimated $7,450 last year in the NJ Spotlight study.
“It’s the net property tax that counts,” Burzichelli emphasized..
Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco (R-Morris) said if Democrats want to criticize Christie on property taxes, they should join with the governor to pass legislation launching a four-year, $1.4 billion initiative to provide property tax credits on income taxes up to $1,000 on the first $10,000 in property taxes paid by homeowners earning up to $400,000 -- a modification of the plan originally advanced by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
“In the decade prior to Gov. Christie taking office, Democrats raised taxes and fees 115 times and it did have a negative effect on this state,” Bucco said. “In three short years, this governor has been able to bring that steam locomotive to almost a halt, a credit not only to this administration, but to the departments that implement its policies,” he said with a nod toward Constable, his deputies, and a row of DCA staff.
“I ask you to embrace the governor’s tax reduction,” he said to the Democrats sitting across from him. “Our residents have suffered long enough. We should move quickly with that tax cut, as quickly as possible. “
Christie did not include funding for the projected first-year $183 million cost of providing a $100 credit to eligible homeowners, although the governor has said he would find savings elsewhere in the budget to cover the cost if the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved a tax cut bill.
Prieto, however, said the issue is the same this year as it was last year when Democratic legislative leaders agreed to pass the first stage of the tax cut if Christie’s revenues came in as projected by the governor and his treasurer.
Revenues not only failed to meet projections, but came in $405 million short in the current fiscal year -- a shortfall Christie filled, as Burzichelli pointed out, by pushing off from May until August the payment of $392 million in property tax credits and rebates to senior citizens and disabled homeowners making up to $150,00 and non-senior homeowners earning up to $75,000.
“We want to support a tax cut, we’ve signed up for it, but we have to be able to afford it,” Prieto said.