Op-Ed: Can Municipalities Make Critical Investments, Limit Property Taxes?

Colleen Mahr | November 18, 2019 | Opinion
‘We hope that come next year, we can report on measurable progress on behalf of our taxpayers’
Colleen Mahr

On Tuesday, Nov. 19, the League of Municipalities will kick off its 104th annual conference. Over three days and in more than 100 educational sessions, local officials, both elected and appointed, will be discussing the topics that matter most to our residents — the taxpayers of New Jersey. During the week, there will be many major issues to tackle, but we expect that the challenge of meeting our responsibility to make critical investments, while limiting local property taxes, will dominate the talk in Atlantic City.

This year’s conference theme is “Igniting Local Engagement.” At the top of the agenda is the overreliance on property taxes to fund local services. For many reasons, local officials have been forced into a growing dependence on regressive property taxes and faced with difficult choices to limit municipal property taxes every year. But demand for local public services continues to increase, and costs continue to rise. Without commensurate increases in relief funding from the state, rising property taxes are inevitable. State policymakers control the flow of municipal property tax-relief funding, which is why this week is important — it provides an opportunity to have clear, frank discussions between public officials on all levels of government.

Far too often when the state needs money to balance its budget,  it raids municipal property tax-relief funds. Between 2008 and 2010, the state used approximately $320 million from Consolidated Municipal Property Tax funding (CMPTRA) and the Energy Tax (ETR) for this purpose. Ten years later, the state budget is still being balanced with these monies, which should flow directly to municipalities.

The League conference is the best opportunity for state leaders, both elected and appointed, to communicate directly with local officials about their priorities and objectives in this “lame duck” legislative session and into 2020. Highlights will include hearing from Gov. Phil Murphy, this year’s keynote speaker at the delegates’ luncheon on Thursday, Nov. 21. We expect to hear the governor articulate his vision for the remainder of his first term and discuss how local officials will factor into his plans.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick will be part of the legislative leaders’ panel on Wednesday, Nov. 20, where we expect to hear the issues they will prioritize in the coming year and how their priorities align with the governor in order to ultimately see legislation passed to benefit the residents of New Jersey.

The Senate president will also join a panel with Sen. Steve Oroho and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald on the bipartisan legislative initiative “Path to Progress,” which includes 27 substantive recommendations designed to fix New Jersey’s fiscal crisis, restoring the stability of the pension system and saving taxpayers’ dollars.

Jordan Glatt and Nicholas Platt, the “shared services czars” appointed by the governor, will join Melanie Walter, director of the Division of Local Government Services, in a panel on shared services, where we hope to hear what new tools and approaches will be provided to local governments to help reduce costs.

Overcoming obstacle to shared services

Almost every municipality in this state has cooperative agreements with other local governments, so the savings that can be realized under the current statutory structure are limited. But municipalities are always focused on reducing costs, creating efficiencies and delivering effective services. As we map out ways to broaden shared services to a new level, we must turn our attention to the current Civil Service requirements, which are the single-greatest impediment to meaningful savings through shared services. Creating a shared service where one jurisdiction is under Civil Service and the other is not can be so complex that, in many cases, it prevents an agreement. We don’t need to get rid of Civil Service, but local voters should have the ability to opt out by referendum.

The League conference is also the best opportunity for local officials to share ideas and to communicate to state leaders our priorities, such as the long overdue reform of the Fair Housing Act. We will press the state Legislature and Murphy administration to return to the table and work with us to develop a reasonable and rational statewide housing policy. Having more than half of New Jersey municipalities work through the courts to produce local housing policy has resulted in millions of local tax dollars needlessly spent on professionals. We expect legislative solutions to address affordable housing reform well before the next housing “round” in 2025.

Other priorities include working with our federal partners on the immediate infrastructure needs of the state, from funding the critical Gateway Project, to ensuring that New Jersey Transit is properly funded after years of neglect. And we must guarantee the basic need for clean and safe drinking water.

Finally, we must come to the understanding that as the state approaches possible legalization of adult use of recreational marijuana, the demands on local enforcement must be fully funded, that municipalities retain a local option tax, and that social justice concerns raised by many New Jersey mayors are not just heard but are clearly addressed in legislation.

These topics, and many, many more, will be discussed in detail as the state’s local officials converge to exchange ideas. Local government is the government closest to the taxpayer, and local officials must be heard by our state leaders. We hope that come next year, at the 105th conference, we can report on measurable progress on behalf of our taxpayers.