TRENTON - Assembly Democrats and a cabinet official bickered Thursday over whether the Republican governor's policies have produced real property tax relief and whether the administration has given sufficient guidance to towns on spending for affordable housing projects.
Richard Constable, commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, told the Assembly Budget Committee that Gov. Christie's reforms, including changes to pensions and benefits and an annual 2 percent cap, are helping to slow property-tax increases.
After a decade in which the average property-tax bill rose by more than 70 percent, "we've now had two consecutive years of the smallest property tax increases in more than 20 years," Constable said.
Democrats, citing an analysis released this week by the news website NJ Spotlight, argued that cuts in municipal aid and other changes have led to an overall tax-burden increase of 18.6 percent since Christie was elected in 2009.
"We have the highest property tax bills in New Jersey history," Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester) said during the hearing, which lasted more than four hours. "The growth rate may be stymied, but bills are still the highest property owners have seen."
Democrats also hammered Constable for the administration's plan to take $164 million in affordable housing money from municipalities and put it into the general fund. The Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), an entity that has been in disarray since Christie tried to abolish it in 2011, met for the first time in two years last week to begin taking back unspent funds.
"All COAH did was wake up from a very long sleep, have a meeting, and propose to grab $164 million," said Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D., Mercer). Once the agency grabs the money and throws it into the general fund, "we don't get anywhere," she said.
On May 1, the council sent letters to municipalities demanding that they turn over funds not committed to low-cost housing projects. Towns have collected the money from developers for years to help meet their requirement to provide housing for low- and moderate-income families.
The council must approve any affordable housing plans, and towns argue that they have received little guidance.
Constable called that argument "disingenuous." Under a 2008 law signed by Gov. Jon S. Corzine, towns had until last summer to spend or allocate the money from their trust funds for such things as site plans.
When Christie moved the functions of the council into Constable's department, municipalities could have sought guidance from the department if they needed guidance on how to spend the money, Constable said. Although he said he did not have numbers immediately available, he said towns have submitted spending plans to the department and the council during the last two years despite the upheaval.
"They have to take affirmative steps to spend the money, not just talk about one day spending it," he said.
Coleman, who sponsored the bill Corzine signed, said the council was supposed to issue regulations before towns ran out of time.
"I believed there was an expectation that guidance would be given to communities as to how to appropriately obligate and spend their money, yet none was given," she said.