Administration Still Defends Removal of Property-Tax Data from DCA Website

Missing information makes it impossible to accurately assess where net property-tax burdens have climbed as tax-relief program was curtailed

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The acting commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs yesterday defended his agency’s decision to remove from its website specific data that used to show where some New Jersey homeowners are facing higher property-tax burdens since Gov. Chris Christie reduced funding for a popular relief program.

Last year, the department removed from a section of its website that features detailed town-by-town property-tax information a column that depicted the net property-tax bill for residents of every town after factoring in the state’s Homestead property tax relief program.

That column used to show where overall property-tax burdens have risen after funding for the program, which pays out direct credits to offset increases in property-tax bills for qualified homeowners, was reduced by Christie after he took office in 2010, resulting in a net reduction in the size of the credits.

Christie, a Republican who is now considering running for U.S. president in 2016, has been criticized both for the resulting increased net property-tax burdens some homeowners have faced and for the removal of the data revealing those increases going back to 2008. Both issues were first reported by NJ Spotlight.

And the comparisons were even less flattering for the 2010 and 2014 tax years because state budget problems meant no Homestead relief was provided at all by the Christie administration during those years.

But Charles Richman, the acting commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, told lawmakers during an Assembly Budget Committee hearing yesterday that the information was taken off the agency’s website because it was simply no longer offering a fair depiction of the net-property tax burden in each community.

[related]He said even in a peak year for the Homestead program about 1 million out of a total of 2.5 million households qualified for the relief. Therefore the column for net property-tax burdens wasn’t representing the experience of a majority of homeowners.

“You can’t divide one into the other to get an average,” Richman said. “One million households didn’t participate in that equation.”

Earlier, Richman stressed to lawmakers during his prepared testimony the effectiveness of the 2 percent cap on local property-tax levy increases signed by Christie that went into effect in 2011.

“Many communities have actually experienced reductions year over year,” he said.
Still, lawmakers have introduced legislation that would restore the net property-tax data to the department’s website, arguing that it does help homeowners better understand the true offset that the Homestead credit provides, particularly in communities were a majority of residents meet the program’s income standards. They also said the column showing the net property-tax burden has become more important after the Homestead program was converted by
Christie from a rebate into a direct tax credit because the state is no longer sending out rebate checks with specific amounts.

“Property taxes remain a very big issue,” Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) said yesterday.

Despite some changes to eligibility rules enacted before Christie took office, roughly 700,000 seniors, disabled residents, and other homeowners still qualify for the Homestead credits, according to the state Department of Treasury.

For seniors and the disabled, annual income eligibility is capped at $150,000. The cap is $75,000 for all other homeowners.

The credits average $516 for seniors and the disabled and $402 for all other qualified homeowners.

Burzichelli asked Richman yesterday, given his concerns about the accuracy of the column depicting the net property-tax burden, whether the department’s charts could just be tweaked to make clear that the net property tax data was only linked to those homeowners receiving Homestead relief.

Richman responded by saying he would never say “there’s no way” to do so. But he went on to say there are many other state property-tax relief programs that also impact a net property tax burden, including those specifically tailored for seniors and veterans.

“It leads to the next question of how far do you go?,” he asked.
Burzichelli also pressed Richman for more information about who exactly was responsible for getting the data taken down from the website.

“Did someone complain?,” he asked Richman.

“I don’t know,” the acting commissioner said in response.