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A Familiar Story: Property Taxes Climb, Tax Relief Remains Flat

True transparency would let average New Jerseyans see for themselves that the popular Homestead tax-relief program is not keeping pace with increasing property taxes

seniors paying bills

After another year in which average New Jersey property-tax bills grew but benefits paid through the popular Homestead relief program remained flat, lawmakers are taking another shot at making sure the public can easily see that growing gap for themselves.

The new effort follows Gov. Chris Christie’s rejection late last year of legislation billed by sponsors as a measure to ensure transparency. Christie conditionally vetoed the bill while he was running for president; at the time, he was attempting to make the case nationally that he’d had a positive impact on New Jersey’s thorny problem of high property taxes.

Now, there’s a new version of the transparency legislation, and it includes a new wrinkle. Several of the changes Christie himself recommended in the conditional veto have been inserted into the updated version of the bill.

Whether it can pass muster with the governor, a second-term Republican who is no longer a candidate for national office this year, remains to be seen.

At issue are details that used to be included in comparative property-tax information that is released every year by the state on a section of its website. Up until two years ago, the Christie administration followed suit, as did its predecessors. But then it decided to remove a specific feature from the tax tables, one that listed the average net property-tax bill in every town for the more than 650,000 homeowners who receive Homestead property-tax relief benefits from the state.

When the change to the state’s tax tables was discovered and reported by NJ Spotlight two years ago the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed a measure seeking to reinstate it.

That bill made it to Christie’s desk last June, but he returned it several months later in the form of a conditional veto that argued even more information should be added to the tax tables because the state also maintains other property-tax relief programs. They include special benefits for veterans and other senior and disabled homeowners.

Christie also seized on the issue of transparency in his veto statement.

“By including as much statistically accurate information as possible, the State can provide the sort of real transparency its citizens deserve,” Christie wrote.

Yet at the same time, by rejecting the original measure, Christie’s conditional veto also insured that the information didn’t make it into the latest tax tables that were released earlier this year by the state Department of Community Affairs.

Christie argued that the breakout for Homestead recipients was misleading because not every homeowner in every community qualifies for that benefit. He’s also stressed that his administration has eased pressure on all homeowners by implementing a 2 percent cap on annual property-tax increases that has helped to slow the growth in average property-tax bills even if they are still going up.

But the omission of the feature listing the net property-tax bill for Homestead recipients has also made it impossible for the thousands of taxpayers who do receive the benefit to track a net increase in their bills that has occurred in recent years during Christie’s tenure. That’s because the state’s average property-tax bill has grown, but the average Homestead benefits have remained flat.

For example, the average New Jersey property tax bill in 2015 rose by nearly $200 to $8,353. But the current state budget funds Homestead benefits that will average $515 for seniors and disabled homeowners who make up to $150,000 annually, and $404 for other homeowners who make up to $75,000 annually. The same state Homestead benefits for the prior year were $516 and $402, respectively.

Now, the new version of the bill that incorporates most of the changes recommended by Christie is starting to advance in the Legislature. The updated measure passed the state Assembly State and Local Government Committee earlier this month with unanimous bipartisan support.

“The sole purpose about this bill once again is trying to make sure that we have accountability and transparency on an issue that is of grave importance to all of us, and that is property taxes,” said Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington).

The measure would still include a net property-tax bill broken down by community for the more than 650,000 recipients of the Homestead benefit. But it now also calls for more information about the other property-tax relief programs, including those for seniors, veterans, and another program that allows any homeowner in New Jersey to deduct up to $10,000 in property taxes from their annual state income.

“We’re comfortable with where we’re at in amending the bill and hopeful for favorable consideration,” said Singleton, who is the chair of the committee and the primary sponsor of the new bill.

It’s unclear right now whether Christie will accept the updated legislation. His office did not respond when asked for comment on the issue last week.

And Christie’s latest proposed budget, meanwhile, would continue the practice of providing only flat Homestead benefits. The average benefit paid to qualifying seniors and disabled homeowners next year is projected to be $515, which is the same as this year’s. The average benefit for other qualified homeowners, according to the proposed budget, is projected to fall by $3 to $401.

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