New Jersey's property tax bills have been rising more slowly since Chris Christie became governor, but that does not mean slow growth for what many homeowners actually have to pay, according to new data released by the state.The average bill last year, according to data released this week by the state Department of Community Affairs, was $7,885 before credits were applied. That's 1.6 percent higher than 2011, which came after a 2.4 percent increase over the year before.

Those increases represent a major change from 2004 to 2006, when the average tax bill went up by more than 7 percent each year.

But the bills are not the entire story: In Christie's first three years in office, taxpayers who receive a homestead rebate or credit have been receiving far less than they did previously.

A taxpayer with the state average property tax bill and the average homestead rebate would have paid $7,410 in property taxes last year, nearly 19 percent more than someone in the same situation in 2009 would have paid, even though Christie and the Legislature raised the rebate in both 2011 and last year.

New Jersey's highest-in-the-nation property taxes are a perpetual political issue in New Jersey. The state relies on them to pay for schools, local governments, fire departments and libraries and they hit especially hard for those whose home values keep rising while their incomes don't -- a group that includes many senior citizens.

What to do about it is a key part of every gubernatorial election and one of the most-watched actions of governors.

Christie, who took office in 2010 as the state was reeling from recession, touts that he has imposed a rigid 2 percent growth on property taxes and other changes to make it possible for local governments to comply. Among those: new rules for how disputed collective bargaining contracts for first-responders are mediated and requirements that public workers pay more for health and retirement benefits.

But with Christie in office, rebates -- which have fluctuated for decades -- have been less generous.

In 2009, Gov. Jon Corzine's final year in office, rebates were limited to senior citizen homeowners making under $150,000 per year and nonseniors with household incomes under $75,000. The average rebate that year was $1,037.

Christie kept those limits and began issuing tax credits instead of rebate checks. In his first year in office, 2010, there were no homestead credits.

In 2011, the credits averaged $240 for those who received them and last year, they were $474.

Neither the Department of Community Affairs nor the state Treasury could provide data on Wednesday on how much the average homeowner pays in property taxes after the credit and another relief program freezing the bills of senior citizens are accounted for.

Lawmakers last year proposed raising the income tax on high earners to pay for larger rebates for more homeowners, but Christie vetoed that.

The Legislature has not taken up Christie's proposal, announced last month, to give income tax credits that would eventually be equivalent to 10 percent of each homeowner's property tax bill.

But in an election year, with Christie expected to face Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono, property taxes will likely continue to be debated.


(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)