User Fee Update From Senate President Sweeney [AUDIO]
Twenty-six states currently allow "user fees" for public safety and New Jersey is one of them.
Four Garden State towns are now charging the fees for things like emergency response services and trash pick-up. Governor Christie says this is a way for mayors to circumvent the 2% cap on property tax hikes and he wants the practice banned pronto. The top lawmaker in the State Senate says he's working on it.
"When we did the property cap bill, unfortunately this is an area we missed," says State senate President Steve Sweeney. "The mayors found it, exploited it and now we gotta shut it down….When we did that cap we were serious about it and unfortunately sometimes people find ways around it and when they find ways around it you gotta close that door too."
In his appearance Monday night on Townsquare Media's 'Ask The Governor' program, Christie said, "Here's what's happening - let me be really clear - the Senate President, the Speaker and I are not going to permit the cap to be run around...I am willing to guarantee you that we're going to pass a user-fee prohibition between now and July first- I'm committed to it, the Senate President is committed to it the Speaker is committed to it - we've been working on drafting legislation that I think we're going to be very close to introducing this week - that's going to stop this."
Sweeney hopes to have a bill signed into law soon too, but says," We going to take our time to make sure that we're very thorough in doing. I'm not gonna rush. I'm going to take my time to ensure that after this is passed the mayors won't be able to find ways around the legislation to maintain property taxes in this state."
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% cap." That means towns that implement the fees would have to cut elsewhere to stay beneath the limit.
The 2% 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."
Last month, we reported that State senator Tony Bucco says, in a direct response to a series of Townsquare Media reports he's also readying a bill to, at the very least, limit the authority of municipalities to impose fees for emergency services.
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."
"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."
"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, Passiac and Medford have already passed ordinances creating "user fees," and several other Jersey towns are reportedly thinking about doing the same thing.
"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."
Another Side To The Story
Martin Mabe, a principle with a fire department cost recovery firm, says capping the amount of money an emergency response agency may charge for its often life-saving services.
"Plays into the hands of insurance companies who for a very long time have been getting away with charging New Jersey residents a premium for emergency response, while almost never actually paying out a claim for it."
Mabe says to the extent that emergency service response is a direct professional service already offered by a New Jersey municipality, guidelines may be needed to insure that both the spirit as well as the letter of Christie's budget cap is honored.
But says Mabe, "To those of us who voluntarily jump from our beds at 2AM to respond to a Grandparent in cardiac arrest, and those of us who chose be late to our day job for the fourth time this month because a school bus hit a tree, and children needed our help, don't tie our hands as we seek ways to improve our service and response without taxing those we serve."