BEDMINSTER -- Back in 2010, Gov. Christie signed a bipartisan measure to cap annual local property tax increases at 2 percent -- with the caveat that, if necessary, a town's residents could vote for a bigger increase.
Medford's all-Republican township council is seeking to do just that, asking voters in a local election today to approve a tax increase beyond the cap. The council members, all newcomers, are facing a $6 million deficit after previous councils failed to cut spending or raise taxes, they said. Cops have already been laid off, and they warn that if the refendum fails, municipal trash pickup would go.
But Christie has turned on his fellow Republicans. He says voters shouldn't give the town any more money.
"They should vote 'no,'" Christie said at a press conference this morning held to highlight new funding for autism programs. "And if we had one of those things in Mendham Township when I voted this morning, I would have voted 'no.'"
Christie first made this recommendation to voters in a radio show last month, angering local Republicans in Medford. My colleague who covers Burlington County, Jan Hefler, reported that Councilman Jeff Beenstock emailed the governor at the time. Beenstock wrote: "I do not believe your statement last night with respect to Medford was accurate or fair, and is likely to result in people voting against the referendum without understanding the situation we are in."
Beenstock said Christie had not responded to his email.
Christie had no sympathy this morning for either the Medford Township council or elected officials in Lawrence, which is also seeking to exceed the cap today.
"This is the world we live in," Christie said. "If it's too tough for you, don't run again. Let's elect some people who can actually fix the problem."
This is all part of a larger tug of war between Christie and municipalities, which say they do not get enough money from the state to balance their budgets. Today in Trenton, mayors said at a press conference that this administration is ripping them off by keeping too much of the "energy tax receipts" levied by towns on utilities.
"The appetite to balance the state's budget literally on the backs of the towns is out of control," Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr said, according to the Star-Ledger.
More trouble for towns is looming. Christie said today he had spoken to Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) about passing a new measure to close "loopholes" in the cap law. Lawrence, for example, would issue a "user fee" if its tax hike gets voted down.
"The cap is the cap," Christie said.
Then he lobbed a threat: "And if they want to play with us, maybe we'll lower the cap."