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ROCCO MAZZA: Taking a bite out of taxpayer muggings

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

Gov. Chris Christie was once the top federal prosecutor in the state, so he knows a crime when he sees one. And this one’s been happening for decades: Every three months, a broad range of New Jerseyans, rich and poor, young and old, are attacked through the mail by property tax bills.

Middle-class families, senior citizens and cash-strapped, lower-income residents are left bruised and battered, with empty wallets, little savings and skyrocketing stress levels.

Thanks to a compromise between Christie and leaders of the state Legislature, these tax hikes will finally be arrested. A new property tax cap is being put into place to keep local property taxes from rising more than 2 percent.

There are currently four exceptions to the cap: debt payments, rising health benefit and pension costs and states of emergencies. It also allows voters to approve an increase in their taxes above 2 percent by a simple majority.

Putting a cap on local tax hikes place enormous pressure on school administrators and municipal officials in your town. In order to help them make government more efficent and less costly, Christie is offering a 33-bill package of proposed changes — a “tool kit.”

The tool kit ranges from changes in the arbitration process, including a restriction on salary awards to stay within the cap, to the reform of civil service rules that could give local government greater flexibility in handling personnel issues to better manage costs. Without it, cost drivers will blow the cap wide open, leaving taxpayer wallets once again vulnerable to attack.

The property tax is the most regressive placed upon humankind. It has no relationship to the ability of one to pay. It has no relationship to income.

A homeowner on a limited fixed income living in their home for 40 years or more must pay the same ever-rising painful costs that the prosperous family around the corner pays. Middle-class families with modest incomes struggling to put the kids through college must pay ridiculous health insurance premiums and expensive food costs while getting walloped with an increased property tax bill despite stagnant wages that never keep up.

The American dream of home ownership is rapidly becoming a nightmare in New Jersey. Property tax bills are pushing middle- and lower-income taxpayers right out of a state where the average household is assessed nearly $7,300 a year, the highest in the country.

With 566 municipalities and over 600 school districts operating in New Jersey, it’s no wonder that local government ends up siphoning so much cash from our declining bank accounts.

So binding these local officials in a fiscal straightjacket has become the means to an end.:Although municipal consolidation and shared services may not be appealing in a state that worships its locally based services, consolidation and sharing may be the only way out of the mess.

Of course, the 2 percent cap and the tool kit are but a part of a much larger effort needed to reform our property tax system. As long as we continue to fund our massive school system through this regressively punishing tax, we no doubt will be revisiting this issue in the future. We must move away from the property tax and look at alternative avenues for funding.

I have been waiting eleven years for the state Legislature to approve a state constitutional convention to specifically examine and reform New Jersey’s tax and spending structure.

I believe the state income tax can be made more progressive (fair share = the more you earn, the more you pay), so that low-income seniors and middle-class families aren’t bearing an unusually heavy economic burden. The state can then acquire the revenue it needs to fund every school system more fairly.

Other states allow their municipal governments to derive revenue from local sales taxes and other options. Saving the residents of New Jersey from personal bankruptcy and keeping them in their homes requires similar innovation. The 2-percent tax cap and its accompanying tool kit are certainly a great start to the process. It’s about time we stopped the crime wave.

What do YOU think? To comment below, REGISTER with CLIFFVIEW PILO T . It’s free, and no addresses or any other kind of information are released under any circumstances.

Rocco Mazza , the president and owner of Page Communications Associates in Lyndhurst, is a public relations and communications expert who has a rich history in North Jersey government and politics. He’s worked on several Democratic campaigns — from former Gov. Jon Corzine’s to U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s — was chief of staff for state Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, and served as a consultant for, among others, BergenPAC and the Bergen County freeholder board. He also held posts with the county utilities authority, among other agencies, and was special assistant to the state’s first Commerce Commissioner.

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