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According to Kelly and Ransom (2000), by state law, Trenton, like other cities in New Jersey, is not allowed to increase its annual budget by more than 3.5% per year absent a referendum that approves such larger increases. For the state capital, Kelly and Ransom note that, "Property taxes are not a viable source of revenue, as much of the city of Trenton is owned by the state of New Jersey and thereby tax exempt. User fees and other charges are not reasonable in a city with 20% poverty and 12% unemployment" (62). Privatization works well for the suburbs, but would limit access to essential services among the city's impoverished residents. State aid remains relatively constant, but the ever-widening gap between suburb and city means the aid accomplishes less and less (Kelly and Ransom 62). New Jersey is a home rule state; however, the position can be made that the state's relationship with its municipalities resembles a form of state supremacy. For instance, Kelly and Ransom point out that, "Even though state aid is a major source of revenue for the city's operating budget, any devolution of social service responsibilities will be a local-federal issue, not a state-local matter" (62). In addition, Kelly and Ransom emphasize that the state will continue to pursue tax reductions based on the argument that municipalities already possess the requisite authority that is needed to resolve these issues for themselves. Based on this rationale, to the extent that cities such as Hoboken fail to achieve meaningful reform is the extent to which they are unable or unwilling to make the draconian sacrifices needed to do so. For instance, Kelly and Ransom note that, "The state is not committed to filling the gaps in block grants. For example, the New Jersey Urban Coordinating Council coordinates the focus and ability of state agencies to assist distressed cities, but without distributing new state dollars. Any increase in city property tax rates is attributable to cities' inability to make spending cuts, not state policy" (62).
Breakdown of state property taxes and local municipality property taxes. Unlike private enterprises that can diversify in times of economic downturn to facilitate their cash flow, municipalities are tied to property taxes in order to provide services. Today, local municipalities in New Jersey rely almost entirely on local property taxes that provide fully 98% of locally raised revenues compared to about 74% nationally (Salmore and Salmore 208-209). Given their inordinately high levels, it is little wonder that the citizens of the state are incensed over their property tax rates. According to New Jersey Assemblyman John McKeon, "Property taxes are issues No. 1, 2 and 3 for the residents of this state" (quoted in Waisanen 2007 at 40).
Hoboken, New Jersey Property Taxes.
By any measure, property taxes in Hoboken have been increased to the extent that many taxpayers are outraged and are demanding relief from their city leaders and state policymakers. According to Baldwin (2009a), "Hoboken taxpayers have been through the wringer when it comes to property taxes. When the city's finances were taken over by the state, Hoboken's municipal tax levy shot up a whopping nearly 70% from 2007 to 2008 in order to fund budget deficits" (4). On a positive note, though, a recent report from Baldwin (2009b) notes that the property tax increase for Hoboken was found to be about 23% during the current fiscal year ending June 30 rather than the 47% increase that had been reported originally. According to Baldwin (2009b), "The 47% was an early, incorrect estimate given out by Hoboken finance workers. The percent went down after the city found a way to spread Hoboken's $11.7 million deficit out over seven years. [However], Hoboken's municipal tax levy, which is separate from county and school taxes, did rise nearly 70%" (2). In an effort to prevent similar accounting and legislative problems in the future, Hoboken has appointed a finance director and anticipates improvements in its accounting and reporting function in the future (Baldwin 2009b).
Hoboken budget and property tax moving forward. A follow-up report from Baldwin (2009a) reports that, "Hoboken's first and second quarter tax bills for fiscal year 2010 [the City's fiscal budget year runs from July 1st to June 30th] will be sent out later this week -- and there's a little light at the end of the tunnel for the city's tax-weary homeowners. The municipal portion of the estimated first and second quarter property tax bill will decrease by five percent from what it was in the third and fourth quarters last fiscal year, 2009" (2). The decrease in the property tax rate is primarily attributed to the fact that Hoboken has been relieved of the responsibility to pay the same enormous costs that were required to be paid in 2007 when the city was taken over by the state (Baldwin 2009a). According to this analyst, "The Hoboken 2009 fiscal year budget was $123.8 million, so high in part because the city had to fund $24 million in uncollected taxes and an unusually high $6.6 million tax reserve, collected because of the late payment of taxes when the City Council didn't pass a budget on time" (Baldwin 2009a:3). In 2009, the city's budget has been projected to be reduced to approximately $90 million according to Hoboken's State Monitor Judy Tripodi; however, at the time of Baldwin's report, Hoboken had not finalized and approved a budget for FY 2010. In 2008, the municipal tax levy in Hoboken was $60 million and the tax levy for FY 2010 is unable to be calculated until such time as the budget for the coming year is formulated and approved (Baldwin 2009a).
Prospect for lowering Hoboken taxes. A recent press release from the Hoboken's mayor's office (July 14, 2009) reported that the municipal segment of the estimated First and Second Quarter FY 2010 property tax bill should decrease by 5%. The press release quotes the city's mayor: "We have tightened our fiscal belt and Hoboken taxpayers will see some relief on the municipal portion of their bills. This reduction represents a down payment on my campaign pledge to lower taxes and is the first of several anticipated reductions in future quarters" (Cammarano 2009:1). The property taxes assessed in Hoboken are comprised of the municipal, school district and county portions of the tax levy. Hoboken's Fiscal Monitor, Judith Tripodi, reports that projections for FY 2010 show the municipal portion being decreased by 5%, a 2% reduction for schools and an increase of about 5% for the county. As noted above, because Hoboken has not finalized and approved its budget for FY 2010, the bills for the first and second quarters are estimates only (Cammarano 2009). These estimates are in line with New Jersey state law which stipulates that the estimated bills are not allowed to be increased or decreased by more than 5% (Cammarano 2009). The mayor also reported that he anticipates a further significant reduction in the municipal portion of the tax levy that will be accomplished by eliminating state-mandated costs and through improved efficiencies and debt restructuring, although he did not specify which costs would be targeted and how the debt restructured would be achieved. The mayor did emphasize, though, that congruent with New Jersey Assemblyman John McKeon's observation noted above, that property taxes were among his primary issues for the coming years: "The reduction of local spending, while maintaining and improving programs and services for all Hoboken residents, is a paramount goal of this Administration. We are constantly monitoring all fiscal expenditures to ensure the best value for taxpayers" (Cammarano 2009:1).
The research showed that there was some good news and some bad news for the taxpayers of Hoboken. On the one hand, a series of legislative and accounting problems contributed to the sizeable increase in property taxes experienced by taxpayers in recent years in ways that adversely affected the ability of the municipality to meet its obligations and provide needed services for its residents. On the other hand, these problems appear to have been transitory in nature and have been addressed through various initiatives and reforms that are intended to ensure they do not recur in the future. Despite this good news, though, the research made it clear that the city's leaders are faced with some significant constraints in how they manage their tax affairs in the future given the city's transition to state oversight and state-mandated reserve funding levels.
Many of the problems facing the leaders of Hoboken and New Jersey are certainly not unique to this city and state, and it is the rare property owner who would argue that property taxes are not high enough and should be increased even further. Nevertheless, given the essential nature of property taxes for the orderly maintenance of the city and state's…[continue]
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