Constituent Questions: Town Finances and Our Property Taxes
I believe that the top issue in West Orange today is our over-reliance on property taxes to finance the budgets of three government entities: the municipal budget, the school budget, and our portion of Essex County’s budget. Several factors have led us to this point, but the result is that any time we see costs increase from any one of these government bodies, the municipal government has very few options to address cost increases. We either have to cut spending elsewhere by reducing services to residents, or we increase property taxes. As a result of decades in this situation, the burden on our homeowners is too much to bear. Our municipal government has not done enough to ensure that our residents receive the external resources we are entitled to receive, nor has it done enough to diversify the revenue streams supporting the three budgets. The result now is that we are overburdening our property taxpayers as budgets and costs continue to climb higher.
I have a plan that will allow us ultimately to better control upward pressure on property taxes, will result in improved property values, and will begin to move us away from our near-exclusive reliance on property taxes. We need to focus on three things: advocating for increased state funding for schools, development of revenue streams, and a smart, cohesive development plan. Each of these things we can control, but only if we are proactive and have the right leadership in place.
First, the biggest portion of property taxes goes to our wonderful public schools, which serve our incredibly diverse and unique student population day in and day out. The State of New Jersey provides funding, pursuant to a school funding formula, to every school district in New Jersey. However, the State usually does not fully fund the amount to which the State’s formula says we are entitled. When the State shortchanges us, our residents must make up any shortfall, resulting in upward pressure on our property taxes. Our residents deserve to have effective advocacy to bring pressure on our representatives in Trenton so that they (a) fully fund the school formula, and (b) reexamine the funding formula itself to increase funding to large, diverse school districts like ours that have higher special needs population, more English as a second language learners, and other traits and characteristics that demand higher funding. Those are costs that should be shared more broadly and it is unfair to ask our residents to absorb a greater proportion of that bill. I have already discussed these issues with mayors in neighboring towns, including Montclair and Maplewood, and we will form a Coalition of Mayors to advocate for our residents in Trenton. I know, based on my professional and political experience, that better planning and better organizing leads to better results. We are going to organize ourselves and make sure that our residents have strong advocates for full state funding. That’s the best thing we can do from a municipal government standpoint to get relief from pressure that higher costs in our schools puts on property taxes. We need to attack the situation as closely to the root cause as we can to attempt to bring true relief to our residents.
Second, we need to develop additional revenue streams that will contribute to our municipal budget. Since I was elected to the Town Council, I have been able to do this, but we need much more. I was the key vote to acquire Rock Spring Golf Course. That vote meant that we now control our own destiny with that property, and because we purchased it before Essex County could purchase it, we also retain revenue from the operation of that property. We had to incur debt to purchase the property, but we have an ability to apply for Green Acres Funding, which should provide approximately $6 million and will eliminate that amount of debt from our books. We receive revenue from the operation of the golf course and we have an ability to improve the current clubhouse and increase the revenue streams we receive. My vision is to create a small scale boutique hotel and conference center that would generate revenue for the town year-round and provide a return on our $6 million investment. After we purchased the course, I was also key to preventing a sale of the property for residential development. Strong leadership means being able to be objective and independent. I listened to the proposal to develop parts of the property and I studied the revenues, costs, and other options we could pursue. In the end, I refused to support the plan to sell part of the property to developers to create housing. When we acquired that property, we acquired a unique jewel and West Orange will benefit from owning it - now and in the future - but only if we have the right leadership in Town Hall.
Another example of my proactive leadership was when New Jersey passed the Jake Honig Legislation for Medicinal Cannabis, I realized quickly that further liberalization of the cannabis laws were sure to follow. I hosted a town hall on medicinal cannabis so we could all become better informed. I studied the issue and I thought about how our town could benefit if and when the state created a broader cannabis industry. Towns and cities that engage with the industry may directly impose a tax on transactions in their town, so I immediately knew that this could be a new revenue stream that might relieve some of the upward pressure on our property taxes. I knew that we could benefit in a way that would not over-burden our town, but that we had to be cautious, deliberate, and thoughtful about engaging with this new emerging industry. I organized a Task Force to set up a careful process so that we could derive revenue from the industry without harming the essential character of our town and could potentially support residents seeking to start new businesses in the process. We have been able to do all of those things. We have a deliberate process that includes the police chief, a member of the zoning board, members of the Town Council, and other, diverse voices who all have West Orange’s best interest at heart. We are one of the only towns in New Jersey that set up such a process and we have reviewed many applications, conditionally approving a handful of applications, including those made by some West Orange residents. In fact, we approved an application for a micro cultivator that will be the first minority and woman-owned business in this state. The owner also happens to be a West Orange resident and I am proud of how we are supporting our residents seeking to enter this new industry. The applications we have approved are now pursuing their state licenses before coming back to the municipal government for final approval to operate. I am very proud that West Orange is a leader in this area. We are approaching this new industry cautiously and thoughtfully, seeking to benefit without harm to the social fabric of our town.
Third, we have to think holistically about development in our town and we have to have a plan. Four years ago I ran for Town Council and said that we need to have a full time town planner so that we create the kind of town we want to live in. With a full time planner, we can better streamline processes to ensure we are working toward the goals of our master plan. While we currently have a consultant planner, he agreed with me that West Orange would benefit from a full time town planner. A full time town planner can help us prioritize access for all residents of West Orange, help us create a walkable downtown, and ensure that we have environmental sustainability. A full time planner will also make development and redevelopment processes more transparent to residents. We can be a leader in New Jersey and create a town where we better control the ever-escalating costs, enhance home values, and attract more opportunity for our residents in a virtuous cycle.
These three things - advocating for resources, developing revenue streams, and having a better plan for development in West Orange - are connected, and they all ultimately focus on moving our town away from over-reliance on property taxes to finance our municipal government, our schools, and our portion of the Essex County government. We need to create for ourselves new ways of paying for the municipal services we all appreciate in our community. We need to mitigate the burdens currently borne by our property tax payers as the only source of revenue to respond to ever-increasing costs.