Tag Archives: Bergen County

Protesting For All the Wrong Reasons: Student Walkouts in New Jersey

This week students in Newark, Montclair and South Orange, N.J. walked out of class. They were  protesting Governor Christie’s proposed education cuts. The walkouts were organized in part via Facebook and a college student who attended high school in Bergen County.

And now there is even worse news. Only ten percent of high school students taking the Alternative Graduation Exam passed language arts and 34 percent passed math. This exam is given only to those students who fail the traditional High School Proficiency Exam. For years, the “alternative” has been a subject of controversy. Districts graded their own exams. And nearly everyone passed.

The Education Law Center has asked that Education Commissioner Bret Schundler ignore the results, since such high failure rates, “threaten the June graduation prospects for thousands of seniors.”

Before protesting school budget cuts students might note. The state spends an average of  nearly $14,000 per pupil. And teachers salaries average $58,000. Over 9,000 high school seniors can’t pass a basic reading test.

Crushed by Taxes in New Jersey

Gannett has done its homework — and the homework of New Jersey’s government(s). This week its New Jersey papers are running a week long series on the state’s property tax crisis.

Visit the Asbury Park Press‘ website and click on a municipality in any one of New Jersey’s 21 counties. Wave your cursor over the bar chart to get a tangible sense of how property taxes are crushing the state’s residents.

For example in Fort Lee, Bergen County, residents face an average tax burden of $8,510, up from $5,545 since 2000. Factor in the property tax rebates from Trenton — the average check sent out in 2008 amounted to $944 — and that’s a 41 percent increase in property taxes in eight years with the rebate. You can get property tax details for each of the state’s 566 municipalities.

Yesterday’s analysis (Day 2) featured a series on one of the major drivers of property taxes: salaries for public sector workers.

Binding arbitration rules mean that unions negotiate their benefits and salaries through a seven-member commission in Trenton with the costs passed on to localities. (For background on the evolution of public sector negotiations in New Jersey from 1968 to today, read, “PERC After 40 Years.”)

Now,  thanks to what must have been a massive amount of data work for Gannett’s reporters, you can easily discover how much police officers, municipal workers, teachers, firemen, and judges are being paid in your town.

Each of New Jersey’s 460,000 public employees enrolled in a benefits program is in this data base by name, jurisdiction, and retirement fund. You can also look inside a police contract.

The Asbury Park Press highlights some of the biggest beneficiaries:

  • A principal at Freehold Regional earns $146,316.
  • A police officer in Belmar grossed $109,975.
  • In Eatontown, a patrol officer earns $90,000.

The reporting continues through Sunday, and it’s worth exploring. It’s also worth asking why some towns were more forthcoming with their data than others.

The illusion of Home Rule

New Jersey is  a small, densely populated state carved into 566 municipalities.

Spend some time in New Jersey and you will discover that it is hard to drive for more than a couple of  minutes without passing through several towns.

The state’s many municipalities were born over the course of 200 years due to a variety of factors. Some towns wanted greater control over school budgets (The reason for Bergen County’s  split into dozens of small towns at the end of the 19th century),  others were carved out of road maintenance disputes, around railroads and factories, over tensions concerning the distribution of revenues to rural and urban areas, and  prohibitions on the sale of alcohol. Though the logic for their creation has long since passed, many towns have strong identities and resist efforts to consolidate.  Arguments have been made for decades that consolidation would bestow greater efficiency in the provision of public services.  But those advocating consolidation and towns  resisting mergers to maintain, “home rule”  have a common enemy: intergovernmental aid.

Since the 1930s, the state government gradually gained control over the management and redistribution of revenues on the local level. (with the exception of the locally levied and distributed property tax). With the Abbott decisions in the 1970s and 1980s, the state created an income tax and redirected the entirety of that revenue stream to the municipalities, and residents, mainly as school aid. (this portion of the state’s budget is called the Property Tax Relief Fund)

These fiscal mechanisms eroded local control. And the presence of state aid in local budgets has created dependency on these streams. Take away aid, and localities must raise property taxes, which are already the highest per capita, in the  nation.

As Alan Karcher notes in his detailed history New Jersey’s Multiple Municipal Madness, between 1873 and 1897 – the years of the municipal boom – New Jersey’s communities were self-sustaining, “and not dependent on state aid to support their local services.”

Of course much has changed since then. But if efficiency is the goal of the state government, and independence the aim of some of New Jersey’s municipalities, then competition is key. In other words, reducing state aid is the only path to true home rule, but with the stimulus working its way through municipal budgets, dependencies on external revenue streams are likely to grow stronger.