When people start debating unfunded state mandates, the talk usually doesn’t boil down to such mundane subjects as municipal master plans, tax maps, audits and aid to libraries.
But when New Jersey lawmakers once again took up the issue of state mandates yesterday, they heard local officials complain about a multitude of such mandates that, they argued, ultimately drive up property taxes, making the state increasingly unaffordable for its residents.
“There’s a long, long list of mandates that can be curbed right now that can give every town tax relief,’’ Hamilton Township Mayor John Bencivengo told the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee. The panel kicked off a series of hearings on state mandates with its chairman, Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), vowing significant reforms in the fall.
“If done correctly, we can bring real savings to property taxes without spending a dime, simply by easing mandates that no longer serve their purpose or are simply too burdensome,’’ McKeon said. To that end, he urged the Christie administration to ask its department heads to come up with a list of mandates that may no longer be needed.
For years, local and county officials have complained loudly about unfunded state mandates, an issue quite familiar to McKeon. The chairman earlier this month was bluntly told by an Ocean County freeholder the county would not undertake a pilot project to deal with stormwater runoff, primarily because the state failed to provide any money for the effort.
At yesterday’s hearing, local officials criticized a wide range of state mandates, but also blamed Civil Service, binding arbitration and the state’s affordable housing policies as factors in New Jersey’s soaring property taxes. Chuck Richmond, an assistant commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, noted the administration has proposed a series of reforms aimed at addressing those issues, some of which have been approved by the legislature.
Still, local officials, while welcoming the focus on state mandates, said the time is past for talk; what is urgently needed is action.
“When are the Assembly and Senate going to act on unfunded mandates?’’ asked Bencivengo. “We basically cried till we’re blue in the face and still don’t get any answers.’’
The Hamilton mayor criticized a mandate his township was given by the state Department of Environmental Protection to install a truck wash to clean off municipal vehicles, an item that would cost more than $300,000 and add a full tax point to the local tax rate. Later, McKeon and environmentalists noted the mandate was aimed at complying with federal law, not a state law.
Lawrence Township Municipal Manager Richard Krawczun told the committee beyond the cost of mandates is the expense of complying with the various state laws and regulations. In the past 30 months, his township has paid DEP more than $100,000 for permits, fees and fines related to its composting facility, recycling center, wetlands and air quality permits and other charges, he said.
Assemblyman Peter Barnes (D-Middlesex) defended the environmental regulations, arguing it was based on the rationale, if left to their own devices, towns and counties wouldn’t do the right thing. It wasn’t too long ago, Barnes said, when people thought nothing of dumping a can of turpentine into a sewer. “I’d hate to see all environmental regulations thrown out,’’ he said.