Last week Jersey City residents started receiving their most recent quarterly property tax bills in the mail, and some people don’t like what they see.
In a year when the mayor promised to keep taxes stable some residents say they’re being hit with tax increases.
Longtime resident Shelley Skinner, who lives in a downtown brownstone purchased about five years ago, said last week she “almost had a stroke” when she received her third quarter tax bill on June 30.
“Our taxes have gone up steadily every year for the last three years,” said Skinner. “I was particularly alarmed by the most recent bill because if this represents what the quarterly payments are going to be for the rest of the year, it’s going to amount to a pretty staggering increase.”
“People in the suburbs don’t even pay the amount of money that we pay in Jersey City.” – Tad Drouet
Some of the increases property owners are seeing are attributable to increases in county and school taxes, and the local municipal government is not entirely to blame for the increases residents are now seeing in the quarterly tax bills.
But some residents question whether the city is exacerbating the tax burden on residents by failing to finalize its 2011 spending plan.
It has been about four months since Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy introduced his $477.3 million 2011 budget. The Jersey City Council held a public hearing on the spending in May. Since then, although the council has met with agency directors and has held budget meetings with the administration, no formal action has been taken on the budget. Instead, each month the nine-member council votes – usually 8-1 – in favor of temporary appropriations.
Without an approved budget, the city has to estimate its monthly expenses and doesn’t have a clear idea of what it can spend for the year.
Skinner estimates that she paid about $12,000 in property taxes last year, an amount that includes taxes for Jersey City, Hudson County, and the local public school system. Last week she said she fears she is on track to pay an estimated $16,000 in property taxes in 2011.
“That’s a few hundred extra bucks a month,” Skinner noted. “That’s not small. It is not sustainable for anybody. Nobody is receiving wage increases that are in line with that. Nobody has income that is anywhere close to keeping pace with these property taxes.”
Some of the tax increases residents have seen in recent years were attributable to hikes in county and school taxes, and the local municipal government is not to blame for county and school tax bills.
Plugging the deficit
Last week alone the City Council approved temporary emergency appropriations for $6 million. Thus far, more than $330 million has been allocated in temporary emergency appropriations since the beginning of the year.
Councilman Steven Fulop has been the only member of the governing body to consistently vote against these regular temporary appropriations.
Since the budget was introduced there has been debate over whether the final approved spending plan would include a municipal property tax increase or not. Mayor Healy has said property taxes would be held steady. The mayor’s opponents have said since the beginning of the year that they believe there will be a tax increase.
The city has been operating with a deficit of about $80 million. The Healy administration has cut services, reduced staff, and has continued mandatory furlough days for municipal employees to help close that budget gap.
But other steps will be needed to close the deficit – steps Fulop said aren’t being taken.
“If you ran your household like this, you’d be homeless. If you ran a company like this, you would be bankrupt,” Fulop said last week. “You cannot spend this money without any sort of plan. The temporary appropriations are a real issue because the council is basically giving a blank check to spend money.”
Last week Business Administrator Jack Kelly reiterated the city’s plan to sell the City Hall annex for $15 million, income that would also be used to close the budget gap. But it has been reported that the state does not believe this $15 million price tag is realistic. (Previous potential developers have offered sums far less for the site.)
But Fulop called this sale – even if it happens – a “one time quick fix, a gimmick.”
The mayor’s spokesperson did not respond to questions about the budget process by press time.
The councilman has floated his own spending reduction plans, which have included combining some city agencies and which have sometimes proved controversial with his colleagues on the council.
Fulop, however, said the other council members seem too willing to kick the budget can down the road.
Is there a Plan B?
“What’s Plan B?” resident John Thieroff asked the council members last Wednesday. “I’ll tell you what Plan B is: There is no Plan B. I’m asking you people to take leadership. Vote one of these [temporary appropriations] down…Send a message that there needs to be accountability. There needs to be a process. We can’t just have money going out the door with no plan attached to it.”
Residents like Skinner and Tad Drouet fear that a tax increase is Plan B.
“I just got my [third quarter] tax bill, and – surprise – it’s up by 4.5 percent over last year’s [third quarter] bill,” said Drouet. “In five years since buying our home, our tax bill is up more than 50 percent (much more than 50 percent if you just look at the municipal side of it). I don’t want to have to move, but come on, is there any end in site?”
Skinner asked the same question.
“To put it in perspective, people in the suburbs don’t even pay the amount of money that we pay in Jersey City,” said Skinner. “My former boss who lives in Westfield and has an acre of land pays $20,000. Who are we kidding here?”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.