After being invited to speak at Wednesday's meeting of the Howell Board of Education State Sen. Robert Singer said he was glad to see the members to the current financial situation.
Singer, a former mayor of Lakewood said he remembers when his town went through similar situations to what Howell is going through now with revaluations, lowering property assessments and increasing taxes. "This is a difficult subject," he said. "It's something that we've dealt with for many many years."
Finding a solution to school funding, he said, dates back to when Brendan Byrne was governor of the state and the income tax was instituted. "They said to the public back then, if you pass the income tax that will pay for education," he said.
In the end, he said that was not the case as the money has gone in other directions along with education. The senator's visit came following a year where the board by close to one million dollars while many residents saw their due to a variety of factors including the revaluation appeals.
Finding ways to not only fund the schools, but do so equitably is something Singer said has been a challenge for many years. He said that while the state budget is close to $31 billion and approximately one third of that goes to the schools how it is divided from there provides its own set of challenges.
Even in recent years when towns have seen their state funding increase after cuts Singer said he knows more work has to be done. "We have tried each year to increase the amount of aid from the state but it's not enough," he said. "Giving you an extra million dollars doesn't change things drastically. It's a lot of money, but it's not enough."
One of the biggest problems for school funding, according to Singer, is that half the money has to go to the comparatively smaller group of what he called "special needs districts," including the Abbott Districts. After that they have to find sources for the additional funding whether that be an increase in the sales tax, raising the income tax or re-distributing the money from the state's casinos or the lottery.
Looking at all of those options, Singer said the changes present their own set of challenges including the sales tax. Raising the tax even half of a percent or one percent, he said would not be enough to help with any change in the property tax formula. He said it was estimated to have to be a three or four percent increase.
Because the rate is where it is, he said people from New York come to New Jersey to shop up north while people from Pennsylvania come across the border to shop in the southern part of the state. "If you turn around and raise our sales tax substantially the flow goes the other way," he said. "People from New Jersey turn around and buy from other states and people from other states are not coming to New Jersey." That change, he said could be detrimental for the state's business owners and make goods in the state more expensive for already cash strapped residents.
The sales tax may be low, but Singer said the income tax is high which he has already seen send people to live in other neighboring states while continuing to work in New Jersey. "What I'm only saying is that they're good suggestions and we must constantly look at them but some of the easiest solutions to have have a consequence as a state."
One part of the town most affected by the recent tax increases was the senior citizen population, particularly in the Equestra neighborhood and Singer said it is a problem he has seen all over the district. "Senior citizens are an important part of our economy in our state," he said. "They're a driving force in spending in our state. There's no question about it that people on a fixed income when you raise property taxes feel it the most."
Singer said the money schools do get from Trenton does not always match what he said they should get in a variety of circumstances including special needs students. "They're not reimbursing nearly as much," he said. "Who picks up the tab, it's the local taxpayer. We're saying the state has to start picking up their fair share."
The older residents living on a fixed budget and young families just starting out are two of the groups Singer said have been affected the most by the current economic conditions. "There's no question about it that we have to find a cure," he said. "I'm just not sure what that cure is."
One of the members who has been active in getting Trenton involved in the process is John Van Noy who serves as the legislative liaison to the New Jersey School Board Association. He has been working on a resolution for the association to get them to persuade the legislature to help with the funding issues. "A more balanced funding ration must be achieved among the state's primary sources of tax revenue namely property tax, income tax and sales tax," he said. "We're not specifying what that percentage should be. But we think it should seriously be looked at again."
Superintendent Enid Golden said she was glad Singer had come to the meeting and looked to him for guidance about what the board and the community can do to help themselves in the future. "Our community is now energized because of the revaluation that occurred," she said. "It was even shocking for us because the board went to such great lengths to not only keep it flat and not go up to the 2 percent, but the board also decreased the budget by another million dollars, which we hadn't done before."
Seeing that work overshadowed by the increase many residents faced in their property taxes was not easy for the board to take. "We have a standing community interaction committee and we want to galvanize that committee with the people that are interested in working with us to see if there is something we can do," she said.
Taxes and Home Values
As mayor of neighboring Lakewood Singer said he remembered a year when 5000 residents filed appeals of their taxes. "I said to the legislature the system is broken and we have to redo it," he said of his response at the time. "There's got to be a better system. I cried wolf and nobody listened. Now it happened all over the state so now we start talking about it."
The problem for townships, he said, is that when a resident wins an appeal the governing body has to give them back their money including the portion dedicated to the schools. However, the returned money does not come from the school boards as the money has already been included in the budget. "The township is hit double," he said. "They're giving back their share, plus your share and your share has been spent so they can't get it back. That's why the system is broken from the township's perspective."
At Wednesday's meeting there were residents from Equestra sitting in the front row and Singer said he felt for their situation. "I saw some of the values that some of the seniors got," he said. "They can't sell their houses."
In the end, Singer said while groups work for change, towns still have to find ways to function until a better system is found. "The township and the school board still have to raise the same amount of money," he said. "People forget that. No matter what the reval was you still have to raise the same amount of money. So all you're doing is redistributing. When you lower the rates for everybody, what happens, you have to raise the taxes so no one really gains from it."
Serving a district that straddles Monmouth and Ocean Counties Singer said he believes the representatives in Trenton can help to make a difference when it comes to future changes. "Ocean and Monmouth Counties put together are a very strong voting block," he said. "I think when you look at it, looking at the delegation put together, that carries some clout."
Whether it was Van Noy's resolution or other ideas Singer said he was willing to help promote the ideas the district has that could help other boards across the state which was good news to Golden. "I'm very happy he said he was willing to continue working with us as we pursue ways to reduce the burden on property taxes," she said. "