- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

PLEASANTVILLE, N.J. (AP) — Philip Messina is fighting a losing battle against his property tax bill.

Last year, the 80-year-old retired chemical engineer paid $11,051 on his four-bedroom, 2-bath home in Woodbridge Township. His taxable income for the year: $7,202.

Mr. Messina, a widower, has to dip into his retirement savings just to stay in the house he’s lived in since 1965.

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Measured on a per capita basis, New Jersey’s property taxes are the highest in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization. The group calculates the tab at more than $1,721 for every man, woman and child in the state.

Rising property taxes, which consistently rank as the No. 1 complaint with New Jersey voters, have moved front and center in the tight governor’s race between Democrat Jon Corzine and Republican Doug Forrester.

Recent polls show the race about even or with Mr. Corzine holding an apparent lead. Mr. Corzine, 58, is a first-term U.S. senator and former chief executive officer of the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs. Mr. Forrester, 52, is a former mayor and the co-owner of a prescription benefits company.

The Nov. 8 election is one of only two governor’s races in the nation this year. The other is in Virginia.

The root of the problem is an old one.

Unlike many states, New Jersey uses its local governments to collect taxes to finance both municipal operations and education, forcing them to provide mandated services without providing corresponding increases in state aid or allowing them to impose taxes on wages, sales taxes or other revenue-raisers.

The sheer number of public agencies — 566 municipalities, 611 school districts, 21 counties — also contributes to high taxes, as do rising assessments on homes.

“Our tax system relies too much on local property taxes and not enough on broad-based state taxes,” said Jon Shure, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a nonprofit liberal think tank.

In candidate forums, television commercials and speeches, Mr. Corzine and Mr. Forrester have tried to tap into the tax angst. Both advocate relief, albeit in different forms:

• Mr. Corzine has proposed easing property taxes for senior citizens on fixed incomes and low-income working families by raising their rebates by 10 percent a year for four years. His plan, which would cost an estimated $1.67 billion to implement, would be financed through state government belt-tightening and new investment initiatives.

• Mr. Forrester says the solution lies in his “30 percent-in-3” plan, which calls for constitutionally mandated property tax cuts totaling 30 percent in three years that would be implemented as automatic rebates on tax bills. His program would cost $3.2 billion, he says.

But many remain skeptical that anyone in Trenton can — or will — address the problem head-on.

Cy Thannikary, chairman of Citizens for Property Tax Reform, a grass-roots lobbying group formed in 2003 to push for a constitutional convention, said New Jersey’s property tax structure imposes a bigger burden on the middle class and poor than it does on the rich.

“We say let’s take the process out of Trenton. It’s an issue that affects all New Jerseyans, and they should be part of the process. Allow us to be citizens, not spectators,” he said.

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