A state program designed specifically to help keep seniors and disabled residents from being forced out of their homes by New Jersey’s ever-rising property-tax bills is once again in line to take a hit from fine print in the annual state budget.
Unless lawmakers take action over the next few weeks or Gov. Chris Christie unexpectedly decides to reverse course, the income limit for the state’s popular “senior freeze” property-tax relief program will remain thousands of dollars below what state law calls for.
Advocates for New Jersey’s seniors roundly criticize what’s becoming an annual under-the-radar budgeting adjustment, saying the suspension of cost-of-living increases comes even as the average property-tax bill continues to go up with no end in sight.
And the stakes for seniors and disabled residents who have qualified for the freeze are high: Those who saw their incomes rise above $70,000 last year are now in danger of losing checks that have averaged over $1,000 in recent years.
Still, even as Christie’s administration has in recent days issued a news release to make sure the more than 100,000 who qualify for the program are aware that an application deadline originally set for today has been extended for several more months, there was no specific notice that the program’s cost-of-living increases could once again be suspended. That’s only in the fine print on the state Division of Taxation’s website.
Known officially as the New Jersey Property Tax Reimbursement, the “senior freeze” nickname comes from the program’s use of state-funded reimbursement checks to effectively freeze property tax bills each year for thousands of longtime New Jersey residents.
To qualify for the program, which started in 1997, homeowners must be at least 65 years old or disabled, and be at least a 10-year resident of New Jersey. They also have to be the owners of their residence for the past three years. Last year, 170,591 seniors and disabled residents received checks that averaged more than $1,200, slightly higher than the prior year, according to the state Department of Treasury.
But the state law that created the program also established an income limit, which is supposed to rise annually with the cost of living, like Social Security benefits. Instead, the limit has been held flat at $70,000 for the past few years, using fine print inserted into the annual state budget through a practice authorized by the state constitution’s balanced-budget clause.
Doing so helps the state save money without having to announce any actual changes to the program, and that “freezing” of the program’s income ceiling has been consistently enacted by the Christie, who took office in 2010. But Democrats who control the state Legislature have also allowed the change to go through on a regular basis, and there’s been no talk this year about stopping that practice as a June 30 deadline for a new state budget is now only a few weeks away.
If allowed to go through again, an income ceiling that was supposed to be set at $87,007 for the 2015 tax year will instead be stuck again at $70,000, according to the state Office of Legislative Services’ latest analysis. It will come as total spending on the senior-freeze program in the budget Christie presented to lawmakers for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is set to drop by about $14 million to $205 million.
That funding reduction also comes as the average New Jersey property tax bill continues to go up, rising last year to $8,353, according to the latest official figures released by the state Department of Community Affairs.
Douglas Johnston, interim state director and governmental-affairs manager for New Jersey AARP, said property tax relief, and specifically the senior-freeze program, is one of the main concerns that’s raised on a regular basis by his organization’s members.
“It’s a big issue,” Johnston said in an interview yesterday.
Many seniors also qualify for the state’s Homestead property tax relief program, which has also been hit by budget language in recent years, with Christie and lawmakers continuously keeping 2006 as the baseline year for calculating benefits. That practice is also on course to continue in during the 2017 fiscal year unless lawmakers decide to rewrite that section of Christie’s proposed budget.
“Why do they continue to make the same choice, which is not to do anything about addressing property taxes,” Johnston said.
The Department of Treasury announced in a news release last week that the deadline for applications for the senior-freeze program’s reimbursements for the 2015 tax year has been extended this year from June 1 to Oct. 17. That will give seniors and disabled residents “the additional time they need to take advantage of this valuable benefit,” said Ford Scudder, the state’s acting treasurer.
Those who’ve submitted applications before the original deadline should get their checks in mid-July, and applications provided afterward will be “processed and delivered as quickly as possible thereafter,” the release said. But it did not mention that the cost-of-living increases were once again in danger of being suspended, likely keeping income eligibility at $70,000 instead of going up to the $87,007 called for in state law. That information is only available after clicking through the release to a link with the Division of Taxation’s website.
Asked about the likelihood that the senior-freeze cost-of-living increase won’t be honored in the budget this year, Treasury spokesman Joseph Perone said the “budgetary income limit to receive a check” hasn’t changed from the year before. He also pointed out there remains “no limit on how much seniors can have in assets” to qualify for the program.