Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Assemblyman seeks to shift tax burden away from property

The tax on Kathleen Santomero's two-bedroom house has doubled to more than $9,000 in a decade, and the Evesham resident knows it will only grow.

The tax on Kathleen Santomero's two-bedroom house has doubled to more than $9,000 in a decade, and the Evesham resident knows it will only grow.

"It's madness for a senior," said Santomero, 59, who had hoped to stop working in a few years in order to travel and spend more time with her retired husband.

New Jersey is addicted to property taxes to fund its towns and public schools, say some critics of the current system. Because it is not income-based, the tax disproportionately burdens retirees, young couples, and homeowners who have lost their jobs or taken pay cuts, they say.

Could the Garden State learn from Pennsylvania, which leans less heavily on property taxes in favor of an array of local taxes that some say creates a fairer system?

New Jersey Assemblyman Louis Greenwald thinks so.

The Camden County Democrat said last week that he had drafted legislation that would let towns vote on imposing local income and sales taxes of up to 1 percent each. Towns would have to lower the property levy a dollar for each dollar collected through the new taxes.

The plan would make New Jersey's system similar to those of many other states, Greenwald said. People would be able to afford better homes as taxes on those properties declined, he said.

Under Greenwald's proposal, the state sales tax would decline to 6 percent from 7 percent.

"We don't have a revenue problem. We have a broken structure," he said last week at a hearing of the Assembly Budget Committee, which he chairs.

In New Jersey, 98 percent of local taxes collected are from property taxes, according to the U.S. Census. In Pennsylvania, property taxes account for 70 percent of local taxes, in line with the national average.

The widespread implementation of local taxes in Pennsylvania is the result of 1960s legislation known as Act 511, sometimes derided as the "Tax Anything Law."

About 80 percent of municipalities in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties - about 190 altogether - levy income taxes.

Most impose a 1 percent tax and split the revenue between the town and school district, though the rates vary from just over 2 percent in distressed areas such as Norristown and Chester to a half-percent in Bristol Township. Philadelphia has a 3.9 percent wage tax for residents and 3.5 for commuters.

Most towns also impose an annual $52 local-services tax.

Abington instituted a 1 percent wage tax in 2003 to raise more money for the budget. Increasing property taxes would have hit "the elderly [and] the people who are out of work that own homes," said Jay Blumenthal, the township's tax collector and treasurer.

After that, he said, other towns in the area "were getting on the bandwagon" with an income tax.

In 2008, the $52 local-services tax was imposed on those who work in Abington and earn at least $12,000. The revenue goes to police, roads, and other municipal services. Residents pay additional fees for sewer service and trash collection.

While the tangle of local taxes contributes to the chaos of Pennsylvania's tax structure, it has kept down property-tax rates, according to a 2008 Inquirer analysis. For every $100,000 of home value, residents of Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties pay $820 more than residents across the river, The Inquirer found.

Just as people should not put all their investments into one fund, it makes sense for local governments to diversify their revenue, said Fred Reddig, executive director of the Governor's Center for Local Government Services in Pennsylvania.

"There are always people that will be winners and losers in terms of the structure," he said. But having a range of revenue sources is "an attempt to provide some balance."

Steven Wray, executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, said: "You're not putting the burden of taxes on exclusively one class of taxpayer, which are homeowners."

Wray noted, however, that the Garden State's income tax - 5.5 percent for middle-income residents and 9 percent for the top earners - is considerably higher than Pennsylvania's, a flat 3 percent. And Pennsylvania has traditionally provided more state funding for local government, he said.

Though full details of Greenwald's plan are not yet known, some critics say the logic of creating additional local income taxes is flawed.

"If people want to reduce their overall tax burden, this isn't the way to do it," said Mark Robyn, an economist with the conservative Tax Foundation in Washington.

He said redistributing a tax burden made more sense at a broad level - statewide or nationally - than in municipalities, where there are smaller differences in incomes. And towns may find income and sales taxes, which are affected by the economy, a more volatile source of revenue than property taxes, Robyn said.

Santomero has many reasons to stay in Evesham with her husband, Charles, 73. Their son and grandchildren live nearby. Their friends are there. Her 85-year-old mother is in Mount Laurel and relies on her as a caregiver.

But "I don't know whether my husband and I can really, realistically retire together" in New Jersey, she said.

Santomero said she knew people who had left for Delaware or needed to take part-time jobs after retiring. The average property-tax bill in town is $6,738, lower than the state average but high for South Jersey.

"For a while, people were OK. Then the taxes got so high it forced them to have to make life-changing decisions in order to eat, pay electric, or have any quality of life," she said.

Santomero was not familiar with Greenwald's proposal, but she said creative thinking was needed to address property taxes.

The New Jersey State League of Municipalities supports Greenwald's proposal as one of many steps it says will be necessary to tackle the problem.

In the last year, much of the debate about curbing property taxes has centered on proposals by Gov. Christie to scale back public-worker health and pension expenses and to streamline the civil service system.

A 2 percent cap on property-tax increases that Christie signed into law last year is not expected to lower taxes unless the state enacts more changes because the limit provides exceptions to cover several costly budget items, such as pensions, health care, and debt service.

The Republican governor last week called Greenwald's proposal "a monumentally stupid idea" and said most residents would agree that they needed to be taxed less.

Gene Noll, a retiree in Medford, said that he did not like the idea of alternative taxes and that towns must follow Christie's direction to cut spending. In his town, where the average property-tax bill is $8,892 - one of the highest in South Jersey - voters last month denied permission to exceed the 2 percent cap on tax increases.

"If my family wasn't in this area, I wouldn't be here, no question," said Noll, 79. "Anybody who lives in New Jersey, and especially in a town like Medford, and they're not working and making substantial income, you'd be nuts staying here because of the taxes alone."

New Jersey's bureaucracy is so large that the state collects more in local taxes than Pennsylvania, which has four million more people.

According to 2008 census statistics, the latest available, local governments in the Keystone State collected $22 billion in local taxes. Property taxes accounted for $15.5 billion; the rest came from personal and corporate income and various other taxes.

The local taxes raised by New Jersey that year: $23.2 billion, nearly all from property taxes.