The issue of taxes is going to dominate this year’s race for New Jersey governor. Yes, there are other important matters to discuss—gay marriage, immigration, and the environment, to name a few—but for most of us, none feels as pressing as those levies.
What is interesting is that, while New Jersey voters seem angrier than ever about high property taxes, it is unclear how far they will go to achieve change. Too often we want to see a problem fixed without any dramatic policy shift or direct impact on our lives.
Consider home rule, which in New Jersey is more of a religion than any sort of policy. Home rule basically means that each community gets to have its own school district, its own police department, its own fire department, etc. As a result, we have 611 school districts and nearly 600 individual communities, some of them ridiculously small in size and population. This contributes heavily to our state having the highest property taxes in the nation.
Think about the common New Jersey scenario where one town of 4,000 has its own school district, and the neighboring town of 10,000 has its own school district. That means one superintendent in each district at an annual salary of about $140,000, plus health benefits, pension, the cost of administrative staff, an assistant superintendent, a principal for each town’s high school, etc. The same is true when it comes to the police and fire departments, as well as other municipal services, in each of these small communities.
Most voters are not willing to accept that home rule contributes to high property taxes, and our political leaders are unwilling to tell us what we really need to hear. That’s not to say creating greater economies of scale for our municipalities is a magic bullet that will solve all of our property tax woes. However, it’s clear that halving the number of school districts would mean fewer superintendents, fewer central offices, and less bureaucracy—all of which would reduce property taxes.
For years, political leaders in Trenton have tried to encourage local officials and voters to support the idea of merging or sharing services with neighboring communities. Not much progress has been made. It’s time to stop asking and start telling. The state needs to identify communities that should merge or consolidate, give them a deadline, and withhold aid if the mandate is not met.
Still, as the campaign heats up, you can bet you won’t hear much discussion of home rule. Conventional political wisdom is that candid talk about home rule makes people uncomfortable. And it’s unheard of to tell voters that they are part of the problem. But I have to ask: Aren’t New Jersey voters angry enough for a candid conversation about the changes we desperately need to get property taxes under control?
Steve Adubato, PhD. is an Emmy Award-winning anchor for Thirteen/WNET and a media analyst and columnist for MSNBC.com, who also appears regularly on CBS 2. He is the author of the book Make the Connection, as well as his newest book What Were They Thinking?, which examines highly publicized and often controversial public relations and media mishaps. For more information, log on to stand-deliver.com.