Tax cap challenges South Jersey boom area

Open fields, cheap land, and good schools made Woolwich attractive to families such as Kate Bennett's - so attractive that the population has tripled to nearly 10,000 since she moved from Philadelphia into a four-bedroom home there a decade ago.

The boom made the Gloucester County farming community one of the fastest-growing towns in the Northeast.

And to residents' dismay, it has caused property taxes to skyrocket as well.

The average tax bill in Woolwich has doubled to $8,625 since 2000, while property taxes overall in communities in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties jumped 64 percent to $5,688, on average, according to an Inquirer analysis of state figures.

"I knew with the construction going on that property taxes would go up . . . but the amount of the increase is just astronomical," said Bennett, 40, a mother of two whose tax bill has risen to nearly $10,000.

The challenges facing the area underscore the limitations of the 2 percent cap on annual tax increases signed into law by Gov. Christie on Tuesday, according to local leaders. Officials in Woolwich and neighboring Swedesboro struggling to put together budgets say the state must do more than issue caps and mandates - it must provide the funding necessary to keep local tax bills down.

Gripes about New Jersey's highest-in-the-nation property taxes are nothing new, but the increases have been particularly acute in parts of Gloucester County.

Woolwich had the fourth-highest jump in taxes in the tri-county area since 2000. Swedesboro, a one-square-mile town that is surrounded by Woolwich and shares two school districts, ranked first. It had an increase of 130 percent, to an average of $5,868.

Seven of the region's 10 fastest-growing tax bills are in Gloucester County towns. Property taxes for the average household have roughly doubled since 2000 in Monroe, Newfield, Mantua, Woodbury Heights, and Elk.

Close behind them with increases of 91 percent are East Greenwich and Harrison, both Woolwich neighbors.

Local leaders note that state aid has substantially lagged the explosive increase in student population in the Woolwich area, which is one reason districts have resorted to drastically hiking taxes to pay for new schools, building expansions, and teachers.

While Woolwich and Swedesboro have merged police departments and share other services, most of the tax levy is for school spending.

In recent months, local leaders have met with state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler and testified before lawmakers, while residents have organized a calling and letter-writing campaign to Christie's office.

"The community has really adopted a common purpose in trying to bring attention to state officials how dire our situation is in terms of trying to fund the fastest-growing school district," said Richard Fisher, superintendent of the Swedesboro-Woolwich School District. "And the only way we can fund the programs is though local property taxes, which really isn't fair to the local property-tax payers."

"Whatever they do with caps," Woolwich Mayor Joe Chila said, "we'll work within those confines. In our case, to truly get control of property taxes the state needs to fund our schools."

Residents may not see much tax relief as long as the school systems that serve the Woolwich area keep growing, as projected. The 2 percent cap maintains existing exceptions for increased student enrollment and debt service, which local governments rely on to build schools.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who represents Woolwich and Swedesboro, joined with the governor in a compromise on the tax-cap bill. Christie has acknowledged that it is just one part of a "tool kit" of proposals that, if enacted by the Legislature this year, will lower spending.

"Gloucester County's taxes have been a big problem for years, and really it's because of all these schools, all this housing and growth in our school enrollment without [state] funding for it," Sweeney said.

He said that had nothing to do with the 2 percent cap, however, and that when the economy turned around, the state could adequately fund those districts.

School spending per pupil is actually lower than the statewide average for the Woolwich school systems. Jim Lavender said the problem was that New Jersey relied too heavily on property taxes.

"We can reduce [the cap] to 11/2 percent, but we're still going to have the highest property taxes in the nation," said Lavender, who served on the Woolwich Township Committee until June and starts in September as superintendent of the Kingsway Regional School District.

The southwestern corner of New Jersey off Exit 2 of the turnpike, just over the bridges from Delaware and Pennsylvania, was sparsely populated only 10 years ago.

Taxes for the average home were $4,262 in Woolwich and $2,553 in Swedesboro. The Swedesboro-Woolwich School District had 670 children; Kingsway Regional, serving middle and high school students, had 1,387.

As housing developments cropped up over farm fields and families moved in, the Swedesboro-Woolwich district built schools and additions to accommodate tripling enrollment.

Documents provided by the school district show that state aid per student didn't keep up, falling from $5,127 in 2001-02 to $2,863 today.

Local officials note that aid did rise several years ago when the state enacted a new school funding formula. They said the state had assured them that they would continue seeing increased funding to offset their population increases.

Then New Jersey's fiscal crisis hit. Christie reduced education aid by $819 million for the coming year, after directing districts to transfer much of their surplus accounts to offset further cuts in the 2009-10 school year.

State aid, while flat most years, dropped about 13 percent per pupil for the 2010-11 school year, according to Swedesboro-Woolwich district figures.

Residents voted down the Kingsway Regional and Swedesboro-Woolwich school budgets in April. Municipal leaders agreed to cut $755,310 from the Swedesboro-Woolwich tax levy, but when the school board balked, the state Department of Education stepped in and approved a reduction of $493,910.

Swedesboro Mayor Tom Fromm expressed outrage, saying that Christie had promised to cut property taxes, but that his administration was raising them further.

The Department of Education declined to comment, while the governor's office did not return a message.

Woolwich resident Janice George said that she had voted for the school budget, but that her biggest concern was that the district wasn't getting adequate funding, while programs were cut and taxes kept escalating.

The growth hasn't leveled off, she said, and "everyone's going, 'When does it stop?' "

A development approved in Woolwich in the late 1990s is just halfway finished, with a plan to bring in 4,500 homes over 20 years.

While most of the population growth is coming from Woolwich, Swedesboro just completed a development of 150 homes and has one for 135 houses on the drawing board, according to the mayor.

The Kingsway Regional district projects enrollment will increase from just over 2,200 to 3,168 in four years.

To accommodate the new students, the school system is planning 37 additional classrooms and other expansions. The projected cost is $30 million, though the district is looking to knock down that total using grants.

Fisher, of Swedesboro-Woolwich, noted that the district was hopeful for change, and that state officials had said "they feel they are going to be able to address this problem based on the fact that we are so far under adequacy."

But no improvements in spending caps or school funding will lower the tax bills residents receive next month: They will reach about $9,000 for the typical Woolwich home.


Contact staff writer Maya Rao

at 856-779-3220 or mrao@phillynews.com.