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N.J. Senate budget committee discusses taxes

A hearing focused on dividing financial responsibilities to deal with storm damage.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Hurricane Sandy may have taken New Jersey residents' minds off their favorite topic of complaint, but not for long. Taxes are now front and center as the state continues the long recovery process.

Taxes were a recurring theme during a hearing of the Senate budget committee Monday at the Meadowlands Racetrack. With thousands of homes damaged and destroyed by water and high winds, mayors are expecting numerous tax appeals from residents seeking to have their bills lowered.

"Many people are going to appeal their taxes. We know that and we understand," said Little Ferry Mayor Mauro Raguseo, whose town suffered catastrophic flooding when a tidal surge backed up the Hackensack River and sent it gushing over six-foot dirt berms. "But it's got to be a system that's fair."

Mayor Dennis Vaccaro of neighboring Moonachie, where 95 percent of homes were damaged, said it was not fair to expect the few homeowners who did not suffer damage to be socked with huge tax increases to pay for those who did - or to foot the bill for whatever percentage the federal government or state will not cover of the $10 million to $12 million needed to repair and rebuild municipal buildings and infrastructure.

"I don't think it's fair for the government, after these people have finished rebuilding their own homes, to make them pay," he said.

Before the late-morning hearing, committee members toured Little Ferry and Moonachie, and spoke to residents and business owners.

Vaccaro, who has witnessed the recovery process from Day One, was emotional during his statement to the committee. "You see people who have 15 years of their lives out on the curb," he said. "It's heartbreaking."

Schools, which are dependent on property taxes, also will be affected. Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo said from 150 to 200 school districts would see a shift in revenues due to decreased property taxes stemming from the storm.

At least the overwhelming majority of schools were open within two weeks of the storm, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf told the committee. Of about 2,500 schools in the state, 113 had serious physical damage but were still accepting students for classes, he said. Eleven are still closed, he said, and some of those may not be able to open until next school year.

Cerf addressed another issue raised by the storm - the mandated 180-day school year. The commissioner said he was not planning to waive the rule but said he would "entertain applications for special dispensation" for extreme cases.