Washington Township resident Cecilia McHale voted for Gov. Christie, and she's glad she did.
She said she thinks Christie can come off as brusque and a little hard-charging, but added, "I think, principally, he wants the right things, and he's honest."
Not everyone in town is so enthusiastic about the rookie Republican governor: retired teacher Joseph Brogna, who usually votes Democratic, said Christie "seemed like an honest guy, and I voted for him. I really wish I could take it back."
The climate in Washington Township offers a look at how the impact of the governor's first year in office is playing out in communities around the state.
Fifty-three percent of the voters in this normally Democratic-leaning suburb of 50,000 - home of many Philadelphia natives - went for Christie in 2009.
Property-tax woes there likely helped Christie's message resonate during the campaign, but officials say the problems have only worsened because of his state budget cuts.
As Christie has made taming New Jersey's highest-in-the-nation property taxes a central theme of his governorship, the tax bill for a property assessed at the Washington Township average of $129,126 is just over $6,600, nearly 80 percent higher than a decade ago, outpacing the average rate of increase statewide.
It takes twice as much in property taxes to support municipal government here as it did in 2000, and nearly double the amount of property taxes to pay for a school system in which student enrollment has declined 8.7 percent during the same period.
Education eats up most of the property-tax bill, and school district spokeswoman Jan Giel said health care, pension benefits, and special education had all driven costs.
Christie has targeted New Jersey's troubled public-employee pension system for reform, but the costs of those benefits, along with health care, fall outside a 2 percent cap on yearly tax increases that he signed into law in July.
"I'd like to see my taxes not go up at all, not even a cap. I think I'm overpriced now," said Anthony Marotta, who pays about $11,000 in tax on a house assessed at $212,200.
His wife, Linda Marotta, meets people through her job as a real estate agent whose hours have been cut, or who have been laid off and who can no longer afford their taxes. She said many prospective home buyers have learned of the taxes and reconsidered moving to the township.
The average property-tax bill in town rose $275 last year, but Washington Township residents are getting less for their money.
Municipal employees have been made to take furloughs, fewer people are serving in local government, and residents have complained to the township that the grass in municipal-owned open space is not cut fast enough. The Fourth of July parade was canceled to save $100,000.
Class sizes have increased in some grades in the school district because about 80 jobs were eliminated, and some students have to walk to school because the district followed state transportation guidelines and eliminated courtesy busing.
Participation in after-school sports has declined since the district imposed a $150 athletic-participation fee last year.
"We're seeing the cost of things go up and the quality of services going down, and people are getting so disgusted with that," Linda Marotta said.
Local officials blame the state.
To offset an $11 billion budget shortfall, Christie cut more than $1.2 billion in local aid, including $900,000 for municipal government and $8.2 million for schools in Washington Township.
The school district had a wave of early retirements, and members of the principals, support services, and supervisors unions who stayed on voted to accept wage freezes even though their contracts called for raises. Bus drivers, mechanics, cafeteria workers, custodians, and assistants also agreed to a $1-per-hour pay cut.
Although district spending was down $1 million, school taxes still were scheduled to increase nearly $200. Township residents voted for the budget, despite Christie's call to vote down spending plans in districts where teachers had not accepted a pay freeze.
Teachers now are working without a contract, and salaries and benefits are sticking points in the mediation between the district and teachers union, Giel said.
"We do anticipate the need for additional cuts in 2011-12 and will have some very difficult decisions to make," Giel wrote in an e-mail.
Chris Alcavage has been trying to return to a full-time position as a special-education teacher in the Washington Township district, where she teaches elementary school part time, but she said she had not been able to because of the cutbacks.
"With all the cuts and all the different things that Chris Christie wants to do, that kind of puts a damper on things," she said.
A teacher at Bells Elementary School who requested anonymity said, "Teachers aren't happy, because they have to do more with less," and aides have been frustrated that they took a pay cut but teachers did not.
In municipal government, the 160-employee workforce has dwindled about 10 percent over the last two years, and the remaining workers are taking on more duties, according to Mayor Matthew Lyons.
He predicted the coming township budget would be even more painful than the last, which reduced spending but still called for a tax increase because of increased benefits costs and a drop in construction and recycling fees and other revenue.
Lyons, a Democrat, said Christie's policies had "placed the burden right on the municipalities and the school districts. Cutting the portion of revenue that is returned to the local towns is not a cost savings, it is just moving the obligation from one pocket to another."
Still, he said, people had responded positively to the shrinking workforce.
"That's one thing that's gotten universal support at this point," he said. "People are struggling, so they expect us to struggle and they expect us to sacrifice."
Assemblyman Domenick DiCicco (D., Gloucester), of Washington Township, maintains that Republicans won control of the Township Council two months ago for the first time in more than a decade because people want to get officials like Christie in office.
He said residents were educating themselves more about the local issues that drive up their property taxes.
"I don't think you have that type of dialogue if you don't have a governor highlighting it. . . . I think his willingness to put issues out to the public has just raised the everyday voter's awareness of what's going on."
While working out at the gym, DiCicco was approached by a resident who said he was no longer considering moving out of New Jersey.
"He said, 'Since Chris Christie became governor, I'm starting to see that there's a possibility that our fiscal house will get in order, and therefore I'm not going to drown in taxes. I'm going to stay a couple years and see how he does,' " DiCicco said.
"I think everybody has said we need a change . . . and he's actually doing it," township resident Ron Reid said.
During a Washington Township town-hall meeting in November as part of a statewide campaign to press his reform agenda, Christie ripped into the Democratic-controlled Legislature for not yet passing his so-called tool kit of proposals to curb property taxes.
But a key piece of the "tool kit" signed into law last month, imposing a 2 percent cap on arbitration awards for police and fire employees, will not affect the township, according to Lyons. He said that was because many public-safety employees had been without a contract before the change took effect this year.
Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D., Gloucester), a former township mayor, said a lot of people wanted to believe their taxes would go down under Christie, but he has not seen a good plan and does not think the "tool kit" will have much effect.
Christie has acknowledged that it will take time to cure the state's fiscal ills and emphasized in last week's State of the State address that he would prioritize reforms for pensions, a major cost-driver in government budgets.
Resident Gary Salmon is troubled that his own property taxes are high, but he does not believe Christie's proposals address the problem.
"I don't see any solution from him yet," said Salmon, "except swagger and bluster."