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A cap may have helped reduce the annual increase in New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes, but taxes are still rising faster than the rate of inflation, and faster than salaries and income.
Data released last Friday by the state Department of Community Affairs shows the average New Jerseyan’s property tax bill rose by 2.4 percent last year to $8,353. It was the highest single-year increase since Gov. Chris Christie enacted a 2 percent property tax cap hike in 2011.
There are a few specific exceptions to the cap: capital expenses and debt payments, employee pension and health benefits increases, declared emergencies and specific purposes approved by voters.
Even a 2 percent yearly increase would have put the average municipal property tax hike above the rate of inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index. Inflation rose about 9 percent from 2010 to 2015. The average property tax bill in New Jersey increased by 10.3 percent between 2010, Christie’s first year in office, and last year, or $95 more than inflation.
During that same time period, the average New Jersey worker’s salary rose about 6.3 percent to nearly $54,000.
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While high property taxes — Wallet Hub ranked New Jersey as having the highest property taxes in the nation again this year — remain a major complaint among home owners, municipal officials say they have to struggle to keep spending within the cap.
“It is a continual challenge to keep tax increases contained,” said Mike Cerra, assistant executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. “There are things we can’t control. When it snows, we have to plow the roads, and we have had two bad winters in a row.”
Shortly after the cap was first enacted, municipalities turned to layoffs and other cuts in order to comply with it, but Cerra said there are no more places for officials to find savings to keep annual increases within 2 percent. And doing so will become even more challenging if the state does not provide money for roads, sewers and other infrastructure projects.
Perhaps because Christie has spent so little time in New Jersey in recent months, there is little indication what his budget proposal for the new fiscal year will look like. The league would like to see more municipal aid, which would help blunt property tax hikes, but no town has seen an increase in general aid since Christie took office. The governor is slated to deliver his budget message next Tuesday.
While home owners used to be able to count on the Homestead Rebate program to provide tax relief, Christie pared that down as well — when he has allocated any money at all.
Today, only home owners with less than $75,000 in income — $150,000 for the elderly and disabled — are eligible for this tax relief program. In May 2015, fewer than 30 percent of all property owners got a credit on their tax bill meant to provide relief for the 2012 tax year. The average rebate was $473. In 2010 and 2014, no one received a rebate.
In former Gov. Jon Corzine’s last year in office, the state provided roughly three times more money in rebates — more than $1 billion — with an average benefit of about $1,037.
Tax credits for 2013 are set to be applied to tax bills this May.
The rebates have been a point of contention between the administration and Democratic legislators. The state used to include the amount of the average rebate in its annual property tax spreadsheets, but stopped including that information and even removed the data from some older spread sheets a couple of years ago. Lawmakers have sought to force state officials to again include the rebate information, but Christie has balked.
This year’s property tax data shows, as in past years, wide variations among municipalities:
* Camden had the lowest average property tax bill of $1,533 last year, one of five municipalities where home owners paid less than $2,000 on average;
* Tiny Tavistock, little more than a golf course in Camden County, had the highest average bill at $30,723, with Alpine in Bergen, Loch Arbor in Monmouth and Millburn in Essex posting average bills of between $20,000 and $23,000;
* The average bill declined between 2014 and 2015 in 59 municipalities, with Trenton seeing the largest drop — nearly 80 percent;
* Walpack in Sussex and Robbinsville in Mercer saw their average tax bills more than double — 195 percent to $10,550 in Robbinsville and 315 percent to $1,822 in Walpack — in the past year;
*During the first five years of the Christie administration, the average tax bill dropped in 21 municipalities, rose by double digits in 281 places, and more than tripled in two — Walpack and Robbinsville, again.
Regardless of what happened to an average bill in a community, individual home owners may have had a very different experience. Especially when a municipality revalues property, some home owners may see their taxes drop, while others face large increases in order to equalize the tax burden in the municipality.