Ask Away: Why Are New Jersey Property Taxes So High?

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

New Jersey is famous for saddling its homeowners with high tax bills. That prompted Paul Waters from Brigantine to ask, “Why are New Jersey property taxes some of the highest in the nation?”

There is not one answer.

Most obvious is that New Jersey has 565 municipalities, down from 567 — that’s 565 mayors, councils, town governments.

New Jersey also has more than 600 school districts, 586 of which are operational, each with its own superintendent and administrative structure.

Then there are the 21 county governments and their bureaucracies.

Public worker salaries and benefits are relatively high in New Jersey thanks to aggressive public sector unions.

Throw in the generally high cost of goods and services in the New York-Philadelphia region and you begin to see why our property taxes have been the highest in the nation for years.

Jon Shure of Taft Communications was press secretary to Gov. Jim Florio, founder of New Jersey Policy Perspective and has deep roots in New Jersey public policy.

We put the question to him.

“In New Jersey we divide ourselves into the tiniest possible pieces for providing services and educating kids, so we’ve got over 600 school districts. That’s a lot of school superintendents, a lot of police chiefs,” he said.

He points to Bergen County with its 70 municipalities and 70 fire departments.

“Bergen County has about a tenth of New York City’s population and has more pieces of firefighting equipment than New York does,” Shure said.

The late Alan Karcher, a former Assembly speaker, captured all this in his book “New Jersey’s Multiple Municipal Madness.”

When it comes to public schools, well-educated New Jerseyans demand the best, whether it’s for football or AP classes, and that costs money.

And we pay for education less with state aid than other states do.

“Around the country, states pay for about 50 percent of local education costs. In New Jersey we’re lucky if it gets to 40. So anything you do at the local level, there’s a good chance other states are paying for that with state taxes,” Shure said.

Shure says if we shifted more of the school burden onto the income tax, it would lighten the property tax burden.

“To the extent that we ever talk about people leaving New Jersey because of taxes, it doesn’t happen because of the income tax. It happens because average people are tired of paying really, really high property taxes that aren’t based on their ability to pay the way the income tax is,” he said.

Many states have unincorporated land. New Jersey does not and we pay taxes on every inch of real estate except for tax-exempt organizations like churches and hospitals.

Many states rely on county government more than we do.

“If you look at other states across the country, and we’re talking about the vast majority of the states, close to 46 states, most services are run at the county level. We’re talking about your school districts, your police departments, some of the big ticket items — and their property tax bills are more than half of what we pay in New Jersey,” said John Donnadio.

Donnadio heads the New Jersey Association of Counties.

We asked him about Maryland, not much bigger than New Jersey.

It has 157 municipalities compared to our 565. Its median property tax bill is $3,305 compared to our $7,905.

Donnadio says doing things regionally is the way to go.

“I think we need to run everything in a regional form of government. I think we really need to gradually move away from a home rule state and look at providing services in a very regional form of government and county form of government. I mean, look at other states across the country, again, providing regional school districts, regional police departments, county-run police departments, county-run school districts. I think we’ve really got to take a really hard look at providing those services on a more regional level,” he said.

To Gov. Chris Christie, the answer has always been consolidation, as he discussed this week on the radio.

“There is an obsessive type of sense, of people in this state of home rule and they want their own town and they want their own town’s name. I mean, I’ve said all along I’d be in favor of merging our towns. I’m in Mendham Township. It’s shaped like a horseshoe. Mendham Borough is inside the horseshoe. I mean it’s ridiculous. We have 5,000 people each in the towns. Why aren’t they consolidated? Why isn’t there one Mendham? I don’t care whether they call it the township or the borough, it doesn’t matter to me. We could save some money and make things more efficient. We’ve got two libraries, we’ve got two police departments, we got two fire departments. It’s insane,” he said.

New Jersey’s high property taxes reflect one other thing about the state — we like what government provides for us and are reluctant to give much of that up.

“I remember one time talking to a state cabinet official in New Jersey and he’d just came back from a meeting of his colleagues from around the country, and he said, I jokingly said to my colleague from North Carolina, ‘You’re taking all our people.’ And he said, ‘You know what? You can have them back because when they move down here they want their trash picked up twice a week,'” Shure said.

You can ask your own question on our Ask Away website.