Judging from its sprawling estates, polo fields, and fox hunts, Bedminster is a town built on champagne and caviar. But take a look at the town budget, and it’s more like Diet Coke and hot dogs.
In fact, this wealthy community is so thrifty it has actually cut the median property taxes paid by its residents by 3 percent over the past two years—something that’s almost unheard of in New Jersey.
With its surprisingly low median tax bill (just $3,529 in 2009), low population density, and impressive school test scores, Bedminster is the number one town in New Jersey Monthly’s 2010 Top Towns survey. The survey was conducted by the Polling Institute at Monmouth University (see page 53 for complete methodology).
How did Bedminster’s leaders manage to lower taxes at a time when most towns were struggling to keep their tax bills from escalating?
Town officials say much of the cost savings came from sharing services with neighboring towns. Mayor Robert Holtaway, a Republican, and his all-Republican township committee have paired that strategy with a leaner town government, eliminating superfluous positions.
“I don’t want to hear that we can’t do something because it’s always been done a certain way,” says Holtaway, who was recently elected to his sixth one-year term. “They’ve learned to stop saying that.”
Located in Somerset County in the heart of New Jersey’s horse country, Bedminster (population 8,344) has worked to retain its rural character, a tall order when your town is situated at the crossroads of two major interstate highways, 78 and 287.
While those highways have helped bring ratables to the town, mainly in the form of office buildings such as the AT&T headquarters and Verizon Wireless offices, town leaders have worked hard to preserve farmland as open space.
The restraint of Bedminster’s residents has helped, too. “Bedminster is unique. We’re blessed with large landowners who have held onto their land—and that’s helped us keep our rural environment,” says Holtaway, an electrical engineer who owns a consulting firm in town.
Drive around Bedminster and it’s evident that township leaders have been able to keep the town from growing too fast.
Bedminster has four historic village neighborhoods: Pluckemin, Bedminster, Lamington, and Pottersville. The main streets in these villages are small, and most businesses are located in former homes, mainly charming old Victorians and colonials from the 1920s. There are also historic buildings, like the popular Willie’s Taverne, which dates back to 1786. Thanks to local zoning laws, there are no glaring signs or drive-through fast- food establishments here. Even the local pizzeria is tastefully decorated.
Bedminster has not been entirely resistant to change, though. In the early 1980s, pushed by the state’s affordable-housing law, the town approved the Hills, a 1,800-acre development of condos, townhouses, duplexes, and single-family homes that forever changed the demographic makeup of Bedminster.
The township was created in 1749 and played a part in the Revolutionary War, when General Henry Knox and his family lived here while he commanded a local artillery school.
Since the 1800s, the area has been home to wealthy and prominent families who bought up large parcels of land in the manner of English gentry. Today, the list of famous residents is impressive. Donald Trump has a home and private golf club here, which he built on the old DeLorean estate (and where his daughter, Ivanka, recently had her glamorous wedding). Publisher and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes lives here, as does former governor Thomas Kean. Another resident is Johnson & Johnson family scion Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson IV, owner of the pro-football Jets. His star quarterback, Mark Sanchez, lives here too.
At one time or another, Bedminster has boasted four secretaries of the treasury, including most recently Nicholas Brady, who served under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis once had a horse farm here, and King Hassan II of Morocco had an estate here as well; it’s now the 500-acre Natirar resort and culinary center.
Much of the town’s 27 square miles is made up of horse farms, and about half its byways are maintained as dirt roads to accommodate the horses. The U.S. Equestrian Team trains for the Olympics at its headquarters here.
Not everyone appreciates the bucolic nature of the township. One wealthy resident with a collection of expensive cars offered to pay to have the road near his house paved. The town turned him down.
In a nod to their English ancestors, fox-hunting clubs and horse racing comprise some of the main social events of these modern-day aristocrats. On most weekends, hunting calls can be heard as mounted sportsmen bound through the undergrowth. Since many of the estates are contiguous, foxhunters are given access to each other’s property.
These estates account for a majority of the township land; most are on lots of ten acres or larger, and about a dozen are on more than 200 acres. Naturally, for the largest landowners, property taxes are well above the median. According to a tax official, a fully assessed 10-acre lot with a 7,800-square-foot dwelling would be valued at $3.025 million, with estimated taxes of $36,900.
While the moneyed class here may live the lifestyle of the rich and famous, they still consider themselves part of the town. Many make it a point to participate in local government. Elizabeth Merck, whose family founded the Merck pharmaceutical company, served many years on the Township Committee, and other estate owners have held positions on the town’s environmental commission and planning board.
“A lot of our volunteers come from that community,” says Judy Sullivan, the township’s clerk administrator, who has worked in Bedminster for 27 years. “Some have even served on the fire department and first aid squad. Residents here are very community minded. That’s partly what makes us who we are.”
Bedminster’s mix of estate owners, well-heeled executives (Wall Street is 90 minutes away by train from neighboring Far Hills), and residents of the Hills creates a unique degree of diversity—in terms of age, race, ethnicity, and income level—that many consider an asset.
“I love Bedminster,” says Katy Rupert, who, with her husband, Gary, owns Three Meadows Farm, a 43-acre spread they purchased in 2001. “I love that it has one of the largest housing developments in the Northeast, and yet you can drive two miles in any direction and see open pastures and rolling hills. I love the good schools, the low taxes, and the diversity in this town. I like that my kids go to school with kids with various backgrounds. I think that’s healthy and good for them. There’s a perfect balance here.” (The Ruperts’ 2009 property tax was $24,000.)
Jim Brady, whose family has long owned a large estate here, agrees. “When the Hills was built, we ended up with a huge development,” says Brady, a great-grandson of New York financier James Cox Brady and nephew of Nicholas Brady. “But it’s really turned out to benefit the town. I think it actually changed for the better over the years. Forty years ago, this was a rural area without any diversity. Now look at us.”
To be sure, residents here did not immediately embrace the Hills. For more than ten years, township leaders fought the proposed development, which now straddles Bedminster and Bernards Township. The Hills consists of 4,000 housing units, about 3,000 in Bedminster; 17 percent of the units within Bedminster qualify as affordable housing. The development has its own supermarket and shops—including Bedminster’s only Starbucks.
Jeanne Maass, who has lived in the Hills for 21 years and has served on the Township Committee for the past three, says Hills residents really feel like part of the larger community.
“When the Hills was first built, it was an adjustment for people in the western part of town,” she says. “It was such a bucolic area and such a large development.” “But now, the community has been around such a long time that people really seem to embrace one another.”
Maass says that when she ran for office, she found she had tremendous support from all parts of the township, not just the Hills. “I was going door to door, meeting new people, and I never felt any animosity,” she says. “The community has really come together.” Maass pays about $7,000 in property tax for her 2,600-square-foot, four-bedroom home.
The existence of the Hills means that many of those who work in Bedminster, such as police and firefighters, can also afford to live here.
Bedminster’s award-winning school is another big draw. The test scores alone are impressive: Proficiency rates on state tests for fourth, eighth, and eleventh graders here are at 95 percent and above.
Bedminster Township School has 620 students, from grades pre-K through 8; after that, students attend Bernards High School, with about 40 percent entering the honors program there. The student population is extremely diverse, and comes from all over, including France, Japan, Korea, and India.
The township school has been named a Benchmark School by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, and a Governor’s School of Excellence. Teachers have also been singled out for their accomplishments, winning various teaching awards. “We have a group of folks so committed to high-quality performance that it reflects on what the kids do,” says schools superintendent Andrew Rinko. “The idea is to offer creative and incredible opportunities for kids in a welcoming environment.”
But Bedminster’s low taxes are surely one of its biggest selling points. Many here credit the mayor’s leadership with paring costs in Bedminster. Holtaway, a part-time mayor who is paid $6,000 annually, has worked hard throughout his tenure to scale down the township government.
“The guy’s an incredibly gifted leader,” says Rupert. “His knowledge is unbelievable. And that experience is what he brings to this town as mayor. As good as this town already is, it’s getting better all the time.”
Bedminster has only 40 municipal employees—including police—and many perform multiple duties. For instance, when the township administrator left, that position was combined with that of the municipal clerk—creating a clerk administrator.
With rare exceptions, most employees do not have municipal cars or cell phones. And everyone is cross-trained, so that when a co-worker is out, his or her position is covered, says Holtaway.
In another cost-saving measure, he recently combined the planning and zoning boards into one land-use board. Even municipal reports have been cut back. “We used to generate a lot of reports that nobody read,” says the mayor. “Now we issue them only when we need them.”
Still, Bedminster’s push to share municipal services is probably the number one way that leaders have been able to trim the budget.
“We’re the poster child for shared services. A lot of the surrounding towns are jumping on the bandwagon, asking how we did it,” says Sullivan, the clerk administrator. “When we do budget sessions, we ask, ‘What’s costing us a lot of money and why?’ Then we brainstorm.”
With neighboring Far Hills (population 898), Bedminster shares its volunteer fire department and first-aid squad, its department of public works, and its library. The township also shares police dispatchers and health services, such as health inspections, with the county.
Of course, people don’t stay here just for low taxes.
“There are a lot of things that go into making a community great,” says Michael Darcy, assistant executive director for the League of Municipalities. “A low tax rate is one of them. But concerned and passionate citizens is another factor. And Bedminster has terrific turnouts when it asks for people to serve on local boards. Having smart, caring people is what makes for a great community.”
Jacqueline Mroz wrote about Deal in the October 2009 issue of New Jersey Monthly.
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