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An Inconvenient Truth: State Wipes Out Data on Christie, Corzine Rebates

Open-government advocates criticize Christie administration for taking down data used to compare net property taxes

How much is the average property tax rebate in your town?

For the last 15 years, you could have looked up that information on the state Department of Community Affairs website. But not anymore.

Two weeks ago, the DCA posted its annual chart of Property Tax Tables for New Jersey’s 565 municipalities to its website for the first time without including columns on Average Homestead Rebates and Average Net Property Taxes, apparently in an effort to discourage reporters from comparing the increase in average net property taxes (property taxes minus rebates) under Gov. Chris Christie and his Democratic predecessor, Jon Corzine.

But when NJ Spotlight used the DCA’s 2012 statewide average rebate numbers -- which would have been the same as 2013 -- to calculate that net property taxes for lower- and middle-income residents rose 20.3 percent in Christie’s first four years compared to 14.1 percent under Corzine, the Christie administration went into its database and deleted the Average Homestead Rebate and Average Net Property Taxes columns from its 2008 to 2012 Property Tax Tables.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Jennifer Kim, state director for the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, which published a study Tuesday showing that New Jersey ranked 30th in the nation in providing online access to government spending data. “Transparency shouldn’t be at the whim of the administration. The public deserves to know. To take away something that has historically been provided year after year just seems outrageous.”

“Data is a two-edged sword that Gov. Christie wields to his political advantage,” said Mark Lagerkvist, the investigative reporter who runs the New Jersey Watchdog public service website. “He uses the website to show his administration is open, but he also withholds public records and hides information that might be embarrassing. What’s transparent is the underlying hypocrisy.”

John Reitmeyer, the budget reporter for The Record who wrote a story last May on the increase in net property taxes under Christie and Corzine, also noticed that the 2008-2012 rebate and net property tax data was on the website on March 20, but disappeared on or about March 21, after the NJ Spotlight story appeared.

DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan, Treasury spokesman Joseph Perone, and Christie press officers Maria Comella, Michael Drewniak, and Kevin Roberts all failed to respond to emailed questions about the reason for the elimination of the rebate and net property tax data. As of last night, the missing data columns had not been restored.

Comparing Christie to Corzine

NJ Spotlight first compared the increase in net property taxes to the increase in actual property taxes in February 2012, but it was a May 2013 story comparing net property tax increases under Christie to Corzine that NJ Spotlight calculated on its own, that aroused Christie’s ire.

The governor, who was then running for reelection, criticized the net property tax calculations, only to have the DCA come out with virtually identical numbers three days later when it posted its 2012 Property Tax Tables with average rebate and net property tax columns included. It is those columns that were eliminated from the 2008 to 2012 Property Tax Tables two weeks ago.

Christie and Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff object to the use of the net property tax calculation, arguing that reporters should focus solely on actual property taxes, which rose twice as fast under Corzine as under Christie, and not on net property taxes for homeowners making up to $75,000 and senior citizens up to $150,000 who are eligible for rebates.

The DCA’s Property Tax Tables, including the average rebate and average net property tax tables, were created in 1998 when Jane Kenny was serving as Community Affairs commissioner under Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. Whitman had just revised the state’s property tax rebate program to tie rebate levels to school property taxes, and Kenny wanted a way to show citizens and reporters how the new rebates reduced the actual property taxes paid in each town.

While the Property Tax Tables are posted on the DCA website, the calculations actually are based on the abstracts of ratables filed by county tax boards with the Treasury Department’s Division of Taxation, which then sends the figures over to the DCA.

DCA’s Property Tax Tables, Abstract of Ratables, and Property Value Classification tables have remained remarkably consistent over the past 16 years, making them valuable tools for researchers. The Christie administration’s decision to no longer provide rebate and net property tax figures in the Property Tax Tables is the first significant elimination of a data category in that time period.

Kim, the NJ PIRG state director who released the “Follow the Money 2014” report that gave New Jersey a C+ grade, noted that New Jersey’s 30th place ranking put it behind both New York and Pennsylvania in the transparency of its government spending data.

She said the website provides more data than previous administrations.

“The problem with the website is that you can look up data, but you can’t download the full dataset, which means that you can’t use the data for any other purpose,” Kim said. “If you look at the grades, most states that received A or high-B grades have fully searchable, fully downloadable databases.

“All data should be made available to the public, and you shouldn’t be able to take away data whenever you want to,” she said, referring to the retroactive elimination of the rebate and net property tax data. The Data Christie Doesn’t Want You to Have NJ Spotlight downloaded the original Property Tax Tables for 2008-2012 that included the average homestead rebates and average net property tax statistics for every New Jersey municipality. There is no rebate column in 2010 because no rebates were paid in the first year of the Christie administration. Those datasheets can be downloaded here:

2012 Property Tax Tables

2011 Property Tax Tables

2010 Property Tax Tables

2009 Property Tax Tables

2008 Property Tax Tables

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