- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2006

BOGOTA, N.J. (AP) — The borough of Bogota in northeastern New Jersey is less than a square mile, yet it has its own high school; public works, health and building departments; and a police force of 15.

New Jersey, with more municipalities per square mile than any other state, also has the nation’s highest property taxes.

Is there a connection? The governor thinks so and is offering financial incentives to municipalities that consolidate or share government services.

But in places such as Bogota, the idea hasn’t been well-received.

In the town of 8,200 about 15 miles from New York City, Mayor Steve Lonegan says he’s compiled data showing that “small towns are cheaper to operate than big cities.”

Bogota’s per-capita municipal cost is $741, he said, compared with $2,039 in Newark and $1,183 in Teaneck.

Mr. Lonegan said that because the borough is small, it can be more fiscally responsible than larger cities.

“In Bogota, we look at every single bill. Last month, we pulled a $49 bill for a catcher’s mitt,” he said.

William G. Dressel Jr., executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, says neighboring towns sometimes find that combining operations makes sense, but they should not be forced to consolidate.

“It’s easy to make Wall Street decisions to reduce costs,” Mr. Dressel said. “The challenge is trying to ensure that the public will get adequate services.”

New Jersey is dotted with small places such as Bogota, 566 municipalities in all, along with 616 school districts. Soaring property taxes average $6,000 a year, twice the national average.

Solving the state’s property-tax crisis was the centerpiece of last year’s gubernatorial election. Democrat Jon Corzine came out on top, promising to increase property-tax relief to homeowners and then boost it by 10 percent in each of his first four years.

Only months after his inauguration, Mr. Corzine broke that promise. Faced with a $5 billion state budget deficit, he abandoned plans to significantly increase the relief. But Mr. Corzine and lawmakers pledged to tackle the issue in a special summer legislative session.

The governor wants the state to give increased financial aid to municipalities and school districts that merge or share services. That could mean combining municipalities into a larger community or combining schools into a regional district. It could also prod governments into sharing services, such as police departments or tax assessors.

High property taxes are only one reason that New Jersey is an expensive place to live. In 2005, New Jersey had the nation’s 10th-highest tax burden, when factoring in the state’s income tax, sales tax and corporate tax, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The state relies on property taxes for about 50 percent of the taxes it collects, compared with a national average of 30 percent.

Amid chronic state budget woes, the state hasn’t increased aid to municipalities and schools for five years. Since then, property taxes have increased about 7 percent a year, and in April, nearly half the state’s school budgets were defeated by voters.

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