Trenton should stop mandates to towns, eliminate income tax

In order to find real solutions to the problem with New Jersey's highest-in-the-nation property taxes, it is critical that we accept the truth as to what is actually causing the problem. The proposal to use state power to pressure small (and not so small) towns to consolidate offered by Senate President Stephen Sweeney and detailed in last Sunday's opinion piece by Andrew Bruck completely ignores the factors that have caused my property taxes to nearly double in the last decade.

My town of Belmar was here 10 years ago. It is not as if we used to be part of a larger town and seceded. In 2001, it was a small town with reasonable taxes. All the services we enjoy today were provided then. There is no major change in the way the town has been run. In fact, we had the same mayor from 1990 until his retirement this year. So what has changed?

I have asked several small-town mayors about this and have gotten the same response from each of them. What's changed is the level of interference in local affairs by the state.

The primary causes of our property tax increases are the ever-increasing levels of compensation that state law requires us to award our workers and the ballooning list of labor, environmental and public safety mandates that Trenton saddles the towns with. When comparing any town's 2001 budget with its 2011 budget, one finds that nearly all the increases in spending are due to changes in state law.

If the contentions of those advocating consolidation were correct, then larger towns would have lower taxes than smaller towns. But the empirical evidence does not bear this out. Both statewide and in my home county of Monmouth, the largest municipalities tend to have the highest taxes. And the neighboring state of Pennsylvania, a property tax refuge for many former residents of New Jersey, has twice the percentage of its population living in towns of under 5,000 than we do.

The truth is that small towns have many advantages aside from the great quality of life to be found in them. It is easier to privatize services without union opposition. They can have volunteer fire departments, and that small-town spirit inspires volunteers to do many jobs that larger towns have to pay people for. They can use part timers and generally pay even their full-time staff less. Their budgets are much easier to manage, and they have less corruption. And any resident can get to know his mayor on a first-name basis.

What Trenton needs to do is deal with its own budget and debt disaster, and stop trying to run our towns. It should repeal all of the hundreds of mandates it has imposed on local government, and it should not dictate the terms of employment of municipal workers or subcontracted labor.

Another important step would be the elimination of the state income tax. Enacted in 1976 for the purpose of property tax relief, it has morphed into a wealth-redistribution and patronage program to funnel money from wealthy and middle-class school districts to the political machines of districts that are better connected.

Trenton should stop mandates to towns, eliminate income tax

And despite what we hear from Sweeney about Trenton subsidizing small towns, the income tax is forcing our small towns to subsidize our larger towns and cities. If we weren't carrying this burden, we could better afford to pay our local taxes. The residents of Belmar, for example, pay $4 million more in state income tax than they receive in state aid from that tax. That's equal to one third of our budget.

Bruck wants to empower the citizenry to go over the heads of their local leaders and have their will respected. But there is no great clamoring among the populace for small-town consolidation. In fact, there are many more secessionist movements out there by people who want to break off from larger towns and form their own small towns than there are people in small towns who want to merge with other towns.

If Bruck wants us to have the power to go over the heads of our leaders, then let's go over the heads of our state leaders and have referendums in our towns to stop paying the income tax if we are dissatisfied with our share of state aid and to ignore any state mandates that are not, in our opinion, worth the cost.

We don't need to surrender our natural right to self determination. We just need to be left alone to manage our affairs without the harmful interference of the politicians in Trenton.

David Schneck of Belmar is a Libertarian Party candidate for state Assembly in the 11th Legislative District.