Saturday, December 27, 2014

Monica Yant Kinney | Take your jobs and shove them

Enough with the whining, unless you're a senior citizen about to lose your house to property taxes, or a young family weighing a move to Delaware because you can't afford to raise your kids here.

Real people know that continuing to ignore the albatross will choke us. Yet the bureaucrats babble on, defending their way of life over ours.

I'm talking about the school superintendents, mayors, fire chiefs and petrified patronage politicians who simultaneously groan about property taxes and bemoan every so-called solution.

Gloucester County educators are freaking out over a proposal - a mere suggestion - to combine 28 school districts into one, scaring parents into thinking their children could suffer a lifetime of failure and indignity if any of the many well-fed administrators loses pay or power.

"If you have one super-superintendent," Deptford's school board president, Bill Elenbark, warned, "you'll end up with a vanilla education."

Last week, in his State of the State address, Gov. Corzine vowed to tie property-tax relief to a statewide cap on local and school taxes. Seems reasonable enough: If you're going to send money to people from Trenton, best to make sure Turnersville, say, doesn't swipe it right out of the mailbox.

On cue, small-town leaders fearful of losing their fiefdoms began predicting lawlessness and disorder sweeping the suburbs - Trash on the streets! No money to fight fires! Say goodbye to holiday light displays! - if they are legally forbidden from hiking local taxes by more than 4 percent a year.

The inhumanity of it all. How will government survive without the unlimited power to gouge its citizens?

And so the story goes

It's all about numbers: New Jersey has 566 municipalities, 616 school districts, 486 local authorities and 792 fire companies, but no longer has the money to support all of them.

It's not as if the state hasn't tried. The typical homeowner pays $6,000 a year and sees her tax bill go up 7 percent every 365 days.

And that's just the average.

Last fall, I told you about Dottye Gross, a Voorhees retiree who thought it had to be a typo when the taxes on her itty-bitty 900-square-foot condo went up 66 percent in one year.

When Dottye invited me over for iced tea to commiserate, I noticed her development is called La Bonne Vie. That's French for "the good life." And it was, for a while.

Lovely place, I told her, but I've seen bigger basements. She's paying $3,000 in taxes to live in a cute little box, and she doesn't even own the ground beneath her feet.

Dottye's 66 percent increase forced the 65-year-old woman to start applying for jobs at the mall. Anyone know anybody facing a steeper tax hike? Dare I ask how they handled it?

Slash and burn

I've read and listened to the experts insisting that forced cuts and consolidations - be it of one-stoplight towns or school districts with no schools - might not lower taxes dramatically. I get that there are no guarantees.

But in a state where superintendents can earn $150,000 and get clothing allowances - for a career in public service, mind you - there's not a lot of sympathy for the status quo.

Twenty-four of the 28 districts in Gloucester County have fewer than 3,000 students, after all. Statewide, nearly half of school districts have fewer than 1,000 students. My high school was bigger than that.

All parents want the best for their kids, but if Dad is working a second job just to keep them in the house near that great, supposedly-free neighborhood school, everyone can do better.

Would New Jersey students actually start dropping out if their school lunches came from a countywide kitchen? Would South Jersey suffer if Hi-Nella existed in name alone?

Asking the state to change its ways because it's the right thing to do has already resulted in 75 years of tough talk on taxes that keep rising.

Forcing consolidations may not shrink every bill. Doing nothing is the only way to ensure nothing will.


Contact Monica Yant Kinney with your tales of property tax outrage at 856-779-3914 or myant@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/yantkinney.
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