By Richard J. Codey
and Joseph J. Roberts Jr.
After decades of enduring false promises, false starts and false hope offered by elected officials, a healthy dose of change, reform and accountability finally is being delivered to New Jersey's long-suffering property taxpayers.
As a result of the Legislature's unprecedented special session on property taxes, New Jersey taxpayers will receive more than $2 billion in immediate property tax cuts for working families, increased state support for renters, and new guarantees of relief for senior citizens.
To make these reductions permanent, a sweeping array of structural reforms are being put in place to control government spending, crack down on government waste and abuse, and promote consolidation, service sharing and accountability in government.
In all, the Legislature's historic initiative achieved roughly 50 property tax reforms, including these:
Beginning this summer, the overwhelming majority of New Jersey's working households will qualify for 20 percent property tax cuts that could run as high as $2,000 a year through a new $2.2 billion system of property tax credits and rebates. About 75 percent of working families - those earning up to $100,000 - will qualify for the 20 percent reduction. Households earning between $100,000 and $250,000 will qualify for tax cuts ranging from 10 percent to 15 percent.
Renters will be eligible for a 100 percent increase in the amount of money the state currently provides for tenant rebates.
Senior citizens and homeowners with disabilities will be guaranteed they receive maximum levels of property tax relief from either this tax cut program or from the state's traditional rebate program - whichever is higher.
A new system of caps is being instituted on runaway property tax increases at the local level. The average property tax increase in New Jersey has been running about 8 percent a year. The new 4 percent cap on local taxing by municipalities and school districts is aimed at cutting the annual property tax growth rate in half.
A streamlined law for consolidating local government will give citizens and local officials new tools to cut the waste and duplication in municipalities and school districts. The state's previously dysfunctional and contradictory array of 337 separate laws on regionalization and local service-sharing have been refined and reduced into a single, uniform statute.
"Super" county superintendents will soon be enlisted and empowered to identify and eliminate wasteful school administrative spending practices.
To ensure greater accountability in government spending, a new, independent state comptroller will root out waste, fraud and abuse of tax dollars.
A sweeping series of reforms to the state's benefits system for public employees will crack down on shameful practices - such as pension boosting, tacking on multiple jobs to boost pension benefits, and padding - that have undermined the system's long-term financial integrity. Public officials who commit crimes while in office will be forced to forfeit their pensions.
The combination of short-term tax cuts and long-term structural reforms provided by this package is the one-two punch property taxpayers in this state need.
But, as substantial as these reforms are, we are not ready to declare "mission accomplished" in our fight against sky-high property taxes. In fact, we are committed to accomplishing even more changes and reforms that will help lower property taxes.
Working with Gov. Corzine, we also intend to enact legislation that will ban dual office holding in New Jersey, and complete work on a new school funding formula that will bring much-needed relief to the preponderance of middle-income suburban districts that have been denied state aid increases in recent years.
This comprehensive, multi-faceted approach to cutting property taxes is a real victory for New Jersey taxpayers and a far cry from the run-of-the-mill rebate distribution programs that previous Legislatures have provided residents.
It is a property tax reform strategy based on a principle of delivering lasting savings for taxpayers instead of one-time quick fixes. It is the double dose of property tax relief and reform our residents have asked for and so desperately need.