NJ Towns Aren’t The Only Ones Charging You Fees [AUDIO/POLL]
The debate over "user fees" took a turn yesterday. 26 states currently allow "user fees" for public safety and New Jersey is one of them.
One member of the Assembly Budget Committee says if lawmakers are looking into curtailing towns' ability to charge the fees they should be checking into schools that are doing the same thing.
"We're seeing a continued creep in the public school system for charging kids activities such as band and football and being in theater," says Assemblyman John Burzichelli. He calls the fees another tax. He asked acting education Commissioner Chris Cerf, "Has the Department (of Education) considered an action in that area because it directly correlates to equal opportunity for kids against parents' ability to pay?"
Cerf says he's not aware of any action. He adds, "As a citizen I'm not a fan of them (the fees). That's not necessarily an official view…….These local folks ought to be in the position of making that call."
Mayors were asked about the practice while testifying before the State Senate Budget Committee recently. Tony Bucco, the ranking Republican isn't satisfied with the answers.
"We have to pay whatever bills we get whether it's pension or anything else," explains East Windsor Mayor Janice Mironov. "We have to pay them. We don't have any option or we can't part a part of it….Aside from the Property tax we really have very limited means to obtain revenue." East Windsor does not charge the fees.
Earlier this month, we reported that Bucco says, in a direct response to a series of Townsquare Media reports he's readying a bill to, at the very least, limit the authority of municipalities to impose fees for emergency services. The top lawmaker in the State Senate is pushing legislation of his own.
In response to Mironov's explanation, Bucco says, "We heard no justification for burdening New Jerseyans with nonsensical fees for the basic services already funded via our nation-high property taxes. The argument, 'municipalities have bills to pay,' is simply insulting to families that pay high percentages of their incomes - in some cases tens of thousands of dollars - to local governments."
"Fee is just another three-letter word for tax," says Senate President Steve Sweeney. "What are we going to be doing next, paying for street lights to be on like they do in Massachusetts? Are we going to implement fees for every single thing that comes down the road?"
Under Sweeney's proposed legislation, services shifted from a property tax base to a "user fee" base would continue to be counted as part of the current 2 percent property tax cap for municipalities. He explains, "We're not saying you can't do a fee, but it's going to count against the 2 percent cap." That means towns that implement the fees would have to cut elsewhere to stay beneath the limit.
The 2 percent cap is no joke says Sweeney, "I guess we didn't make that clear enough. Local governments have found a way to implement fees………. Municipal governments must do more to control property taxes. Paying lip service to their residents needs for cost containment, then turning around and hitting them with a separate bill, is still just taking more money out of the same pocket."
"Out-of-control spending needs to stop," says Bucco. "To that end, I look forward to immediately reaching a bipartisan agreement with the Senate President to protect New Jerseyans from outlandish fees for local services already paid for with property taxes."
Sweeney says he will fast-track his bill through the legislature and has already been talking to Assembly members who might want to sponsor the measure in that house.
"Residents already pay fees for emergency services, they're called property taxes," says Bucco. "If the highest property taxes in America aren't enough to support basic public safety and emergency services, then there is something severely wrong with our spending priorities as a state."
Bucco is working with legislative staff to study the laws of other states and propose a statute limiting the amounts that could be charged and/or under what circumstances. He hopes to submit a proposal to the Senate at its next full meeting. Bucco says, "What we're trying to do is cap the fees or eliminate the fees altogether.
"It adds insult to injury to ask someone whose house caught fire or who was the victim of a crime to cough up more money in addition to the taxes they pay," insists Bucco continued. "Charging people for a basic service in their hour of need is just more proof that the size and cost of government have gotten out of control."
Atlantic City, Bloomfield and Passiac have already passed ordinances creating "emergency response fees," and several other Jersey towns are thinking about doing the same thing.
"These are services that are paid through property taxes or sales taxes and municipalities shouldn't go looking elsewhere to fund essential services that government delivers" says Michael Barry, spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute. "There are some insurers that will pay these fees and there are some that will not. The existence of these types of taxes can place upward pressure on insurance rates in the long run."
"Local officials, first and foremost, have an obligation if not a moral responsibility to provide public quality of life services And they're looking at ways they can do that, and at the same time be sensitive to property taxes," explains New Jersey State League of Municipalities executive director Bill Dressel explains, "Local officials are trying make sure that in these dire economic times that the residents are not going to be over-taxed for these services."