The Freak Show: New Jersey And You… Perfect Together?

Statistics just released showed that property taxes in New Jersey, already the highest in the United States, went up an average of 2.4 percent in 2011. The politicians in Trenton are congratulating each other for keeping it so low, while those in towns around the state are claiming the small increase meant they had to slash services and lay off employees.

They should all be ashamed of themselves. They are ethically and morally challenged if they think that their 2 percent cap plan is fair to the people of New Jersey. There should be a required reduction in property taxes each year under things are more under control. Spending by our state and local governments is so far out of hand that this year’s state budget will be almost $10 billion more than it was 10 years ago. In a budget that’s around $30 billion, that’s a pretty big increase. Are you getting $10 billion more from your government then you were 10 years ago?

And local spending is even more out of hand. The 2011 average property tax bill was $7,758. In 1999, the average was $4,239. All these amounts way outpace inflation. In 2000, total property taxes paid were 14.2 billion. In 2011 they were $25.8 billion. In 10 years they’ve gone up by over $10 billion. Has the quality of local services, or the quality of schools, gone up accordingly? Not according to what statistics show. Yet according to local government officials and workers, they are being forced to work with bare bones budgets and forgo their deserved raises and promised benefits.

South Brunswick Mayor Frank Gambatese was quoted as saying, “It’s totally misleading in my opinion to say, ‘Oh, this 2 percent cap has done a great job for the towns.’ It has not.” He says he was forced to lay off more than 20 employees in 2011 to stay within the limit. So let me ask you, Mr. Mayor. Since health benefits and pension payments are excluded from the cap requirement, what exactly has gone up so much that you had to lay off workers and cut services to keep the increase to only 2 percent? Is it the raises the workers have to get? Overtime? The cost of the provided vehicles or other perks? The cost of replacing office machines? Why, if you STILL raised taxes, even if it was a small amount, do you have to have massive cuts? Private companies certainly don’t have major cuts when their income goes up by 2 percent.

Let’s look at just a few things going on and you’ll get an idea of what our government does with our money.

Most municipalities have a number of bonuses they give out, such as “longevity bonuses,” where you get significant extra pay just for being there a long time. For instance, Joseph M. Hartnett, the former Montclair township manager, along with a $400-per-month car allowance, was paid $193,624 in 2009, nearly $40,000 above his base salary of $154,825. The municipality’s two public safety chiefs, David Sabagh and Kevin Allen, were given uniform allowances, college stipends and longevity pay that raised Sabagh’s salary of $146,767 by $19,545, and Allen’s base salary of $142,776 by $20,447. So if you’re not happy with the high salaries these public workers get, you should know that they are actually taking home even more.

In that same school district, Superintendent Frank Alvarez had his 2009 salary of $216,083 boosted with an extra $19,942. Felice Harrison, the district’s community relations director, something I suppose is vital for a local government to have, received $16,840 above her base salary of $139,508.

Right now there’s a fight going in the state house to limit employees being paid for sick days they don’t use when they retire. Sounds reasonable, until you realize these are PAID sick days. So that means when they retire, they get paid again, for the same day! So in essence, these workers are getting double pay if they stay healthy. Meanwhile, in private companies, you use sick days or you lose them. That’s what they are for, being sick, not to pad your income. Seems like a small thing, but estimates of the amount it costs us taxpayers comes to more than $825 million statewide.

At Governor Christie’s behest, the Port Authority recently decided to end the practice of giving retired workers free E-ZPass for life. That’s right, if you work for them, you never have to pay a toll in New Jersey again. The retirees are now suing to get that right reinstated. I don’t think even current workers should get that. After all, if you work for a private company, you don’t get products for free. Why should they? Of course, a study showed the amount the Port Authority spends on its operations and luxury offices is so outlandish, they probably don’t feel constrained by any common sense that normal people have about such things.

And here’s one of the biggest jokes: Do you know that municipalities spend money lobbying our state legislators? That’s right, they take money you pay in taxes, and spend it on trying get the state to do things that benefit them. For example, the city of Newark, which complains it has severe budget problems, spent $213,000 lobbying state government. Shouldn’t our government be trying to work together, to do what’s best for the residents? And shouldn’t the representative who has Newark in his district be working in Trenton to get aid for the city? But no, they spread our money around like its grains of sand at the Jersey shore. Just throw it around and grab all you can.

A 2009 study showed that many municipalities are guaranteed time off with full pay for things like Christmas shopping and weddings, and get birthday bonuses (along with the day off). And don’t give me that line about government workers getting less pay, so they need the perks. A Times of Trenton study showed that New Jersey government workers get paid on average 17 percent more than those in similar jobs in the real world, and get 50 percent higher benefits.

If you own a home in New Jersey, every time you pay that mortgage or pay the tax bill directly, just think of where your money goes. New Jersey and you, perfect together… if you work for the government!