In the debate over property taxes - an issue that seems to be everybody's problem and nobody's fault - mayors want out of the crosshairs.
They complain their towns get too much blame and too little money in the acrimonious fight over ways to cut and save. Their mantra: What about the counties? What about the state?
To which county officials respond: Look in the mirror.
A proposed property-tax law that would give most homeowners a 20 percent reduction in tax bills and limit annual tax increases to 4 percent is expected to be considered today by the Assembly and next Monday by the Senate.
"We're not real happy with the situation," said Somerdale Mayor Gary Passanante, chairman of the property-tax-reform committee of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. "As we all watch our nickels, it always seems the burden of property-tax relief falls to the municipalities to solve."
"What about a cap on state spending?" Passanante asked. "Why do they march to a different beat?" Local officials complain that while state budgets have risen, the state hasn't increased aid to towns and schools for five years.
Passanante and other mayors met with Gov. Corzine and legislative leaders this month in Trenton and came away convinced they were being made scapegoats for the state's high property taxes.
"We were pretty unanimous that the state and the counties ought to be doing their share," Passanante said.
"Maybe the Legislature forgot there were such things as county governments," said William Dressel Jr., executive director of the League of Municipalities. "Maybe we shouldn't have been as vocal as we've been in calling for tax relief. Maybe we made ourselves a sitting target, while our brothers and sisters in county government have come out unscathed."
Nonsense, said county officials.
They said that the 4 percent cap would apply to counties as well as to schools and municipalities, and that municipalities needed to do more to share services and cut costs.
"My experience is that when the county takes a service from the municipalities and does it for them, the municipalities need to take that out of their budgets," said Stephen Sweeney, Gloucester County freeholder director and a Democratic state senator.
Sweeney cited several examples. When Gloucester County took over police dispatch duties, saving towns $4.5 million a year, town budgets weren't reduced to reflect the savings, he said. And when garbage-collection costs were cut in half, he said, towns didn't cut their budgets.
"I am a firm believer that if you put more money in the towns, it will be spent," Sweeney said. "Who doesn't want to expand the Little League fields? Who doesn't want to expand the municipal garage? But if you can't afford it, don't do it."
He added: "We're going to have to force things. If we don't address spending and force communities to work together more, we're never going have any stabilization of property taxes."
The mayors contend that since they don't get the lion's share of property-tax revenue, they shouldn't get so much of the heat.
In Camden County, schools get 53.8 percent of the property-tax revenue, the county gets 26.6 percent, and municipalities get 19.6 percent. In Burlington County, it's 64.3 percent for schools, 18.6 percent for the county, and 17.0 percent for municipalities. In Gloucester County, schools get 55.5 percent, the county gets 23 percent, and municipalities get 21.5 percent.
(Statewide, schools get 55 percent of property-tax revenue, municipalities get 26 percent, and counties get 19 percent, according to the Department of Community Affairs.)
The reality, of course, is that many towns' identities - and perhaps their fates - are bound up with their schools. Proposals for municipal consolidations or cost-sharing often focus as well on school districts, which get most of the property-tax revenue.
"If the state would find an equitable way to fund schools, we wouldn't need all this," Haddonfield Mayor Tish Colombi said. "We're putting our communities in the position of not wanting families to move in because we can't afford to educate their children."
Paul Stephenson, a Willingboro Township Council member and five-time mayor, said the state's inability to come up with a new formula for funding schools "is a huge failure."
"It's wrong, unethical and unfair to place that burden on municipalities," he said. "I don't understand why the state is leaning so heavily on the municipalities while it's not capping its own budget."
Stephenson also said "counties could do more in working with municipalities." And he said arbitrated police and fire pay raises were outstripping towns' abilities to fund them.
William S. Haines, a Burlington County freeholder, said Stephenson was right about the state but wrong about the county. He cited ways the county saved towns money: picking up recyclables in all 40 towns, providing police dispatch services for 39 of them, serving as the health department for the towns, and providing pooled bonding to allow towns to borrow money more cheaply.
"The county has done a great deal to help with property taxes in the municipalities," Haines said. He also blamed Trenton: "The state is putting a tremendous burden on both the counties and the towns."
Haddonfield's Colombi, who returned from the meeting with Corzine and legislative leaders convinced that "nothing's going to change," also called for state and county governments to share more of the pain.
"Camden County controls all jobs in the county. They have a constant source of new income from every home built in Camden County, so when they say, 'We didn't have to raise your taxes this year,' what they really mean is that they have a continuing influx of new taxes to do with as they please," she said. ". . . How long should they be allowed to operate without any oversight?"
Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said Colombi "has her facts wrong." The county has cut its budget, eliminated 300 county jobs in the last three years, and established an office of shared services to help municipalities consolidate costs, he said.
"We will be lowering taxes in 2007, and we will be spending less in 2007 than in 2006," Cappelli said. "I wonder if Mayor Colombi can make the same claim."
Colombi said many costs, such as health insurance and arbitrated raises for police and fire, were beyond the control of town leaders.
"It's just hopeless. We're told we have to solve our own problems, and we're not equipped to do that," Colombi said. "There has to be some control over arbitration for police and fire and union contracts. You can't arbitrate a contract at 51/2 percent and have a 4 percent cap on spending."
The proposed law contains a number of exceptions to the spending cap. And the Legislature is considering giving towns, schools and counties the authority to exceed the cap in a year if 60 percent of voters agree.
School costs associated with enrollment increases and health-care costs under existing contracts would be exempt from the cap. Schools would be able to seek approval from the state or voters to exceed the cap for increases in areas such as special-education costs, tuition charged to a sending district, capital, energy, and school busing on hazardous routes.
Municipal and county governments and fire districts would be able to exempt expenses associated with debt, public worker pensions, uncollected taxes, and health-care costs under existing contracts.
They would be able to ask the state or voters for approval to exempt costs from leases and energy and those mandated by a court and state and federal governments.