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The amount paid by the average New Jersey property-tax payer increased by less than 1 percent last year, the smallest rise in decades. But detailed data released by state officials show a wide range of changes based on where homeowners live.
Data from the state Department of Community Affairs shows that the average property tax bill declined between 2017 and 2018 in 61 communities and dropped by double digits in four: Walpack, Loch Arbor, Washington Township in Burlington County, and Weehawken. Four other municipalities — Stow Creek, Wrightstown, Elmer, and Interlaken — had double-digit tax increases.
Average property-tax bills vary widely from town to town, ranging from a low of $450 in Walpack in Sussex County to a high of $31,736 in Tavistock in Camden. Both communities have a population of less than 10, with Walpack largely federal park land and Tavistock largely a golf course.
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Any way you count it
New Jersey’s property taxes still remain the highest in the nation using several gauges, including average amount paid, tax as a percentage of home value, and per capita property tax.
Still, the average annual increases in taxes this decade have been lower than in the prior decade, due in large part to several reforms enacted by former Gov. Chris Christie, most notably a 2 percent cap on annual increases in the tax levy. Murphy contends that the $350 million increase in public school funding in his first budget contributed to last year’s low increase.
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Still, while tax bills have risen by a smaller amount, wealthier property owners suffered from the loss of the popular Homestead Rebate, a check that used to be sent each year to all homeowners to offset property-tax increases. At the peak, those checks averaged around $1,000 or more in some of the wealthiest communities. Today, the typical homeowner can have no more than $75,000 in income — $150,000 for seniors and disabled individuals — to qualify for a credit that last year averaged $249.
Because not every property owner now receives direct property-tax relief, it is impossible to determine the long-term average net property-tax change.
Homestead Credit continues to dwindle
The amount spent on what is now called the Homestead Credit continues to decline. Last year, the state spent about $139 million to give an average $249 to more than 558,000 property owners. In 2016, close to 700,000 households got an average $471, for a total of $329 million.
The Senior Freeze, which took effect in 1997, is now the largest program giving direct tax relief to homeowners. As its name implies, it effectively freezes property-tax bills for seniors. Its total is also declining. Last year, according to the DCA database, about 154,000 seniors — some 10,000 fewer than in 2017 — qualified. They received an average of $1,244, or $9 more, through the program. To qualify, a homeowner must be at least 65 or disabled, have lived in the state for a minimum of a decade, and resided in their current home for the past three years. There is also an income gap, which itself has been frozen for the past decade at $70,000 a year. Although it is slated to increase to $89,013 this year, that could be overridden by Murphy in his next state budget.
Local officials are anxiously awaiting Murphy’s budget proposal, slated for next Tuesday, to find out whether he will be recommending any increased aid for schools, municipalities, or counties. Officials can use aid to blunt tax increases or to pay for increased services, provided they stay within the 2 percent state cap. Although Murphy has said he wants to increase aid to schools, state tax collections have been lagging behind projections and that could affect how much the governor has to spend.