Analysis: Average property tax bill in Burlington County up 4.6 percent

New Jersey's dreaded property taxes are on the rise again in Burlington County.

An analysis of data released this month by the Burlington County Tax Board revealed that the average tax bill in the county grew this year by 4.6 percent to $6,327, about $278 more than the average bill in 2014.

The increase marks the largest in the five years since Gov. Chris Christie and state lawmakers created a tougher 2 percent tax levy cap in 2010. In the ensuing years, property taxes in the county and across New Jersey continued to grow, but at a rate of 2 percent or less.

This year marked the first increase over 2 percent in the county since 2010, when the average county tax bill grew about 2.8 percent, or about $154. In 2011, the first year of the 2 percent cap, the average tax bill in the county rose 1 percent, roughly $61.

In 2012, it increased 1.2 percent, or about $69; and in 2013 and 2014 the average bill grew about 2 percent both years, rising about $125 in 2013 and $120 last year.

The news isn't all bad. After all, property taxes in Burlington County grew at an even greater rate in 2007, when they rose 5 percent, and in 2006, when they grew 8 percent.

The figures were calculated from the property tax bills of the average assessed residential property value in each of Burlington County's 40 municipalities, based on the total tax rate in each.

The total rate combines the taxes for local purpose, school, county government, county library, municipal library, fire district, and farmland and open space preservation.

According to the tax data, property taxes are rising in 39 of the 40 municipalities in Burlington County, in some cases significantly, as bills in 14 towns are increasing 5 percent or more.

What happened this year to cause property taxes to rise so much?

For starters, the Burlington County Board of Freeholders reinstated the county's full 4-cent open space tax after reducing the levy in 2013 and 2014 to 1.5 cents. While the reduction helped temporarily ease some of the tax burden on property owners, it caused the county to spend down its farmland and open space funds.

Entering 2015, there was about $25.3 million left in the county open space trust fund, prompting the freeholders to decide to restore the full tax as part of their 2015 budget.

The budget also raised the net county tax levy by about $3 million to $155.5 million. Although within the state's 2 percent tax cap, the hike resulted in an increase in the county tax rate in 32 of the county's 40 towns.

The county rates are determined based on the market value in each town rather than the assessed property value.

County officials have said the increase was needed to avoid significant layoffs, furloughs and service cuts. The budget also includes additional funding for Rowan College at Burlington County and more money for the county library system.

The county is mandated to increase some funding for social services and absorb a $745,000 loss in jail revenues.

In addition to the county tax increase, the local school tax rate — which is typically the largest factor in a property tax bill — increased in 36 of 37 local school districts. Regional school tax rates also increased in most of those sending towns.

The municipal local purpose tax rate increased in 31 of the 40 towns.

The increases are within the confines of the 2 percent tax levy cap, which exempts some costs for schools and municipalities. Those exemptions include debt service, declared disaster responses, and increases in health and pension costs.

In addition, school districts are allowed to exceed the cap due to enrollment increases, and school districts and municipal governments also are able to use "banked" cap money from previous years when their levies were below the 2 percent limit.

This year, 19 school districts in Burlington County used banked-cap money in their budgets to exceed the 2 percent limit. Twenty-two of them are using the health care cost exemption.

Mike Cerra, assistant executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said each town's finances are unique, but many of them are under strain from winter snow removal expenses and repairs to potholes and other road damage.

"They're facing some high infrastructure costs from roads that have to be done, and without enough federal or state money coming in, some have had to turn to property taxes," Cerra said.

Christie, a Republican who is in the midst of a presidential campaign, defended his record on property taxes earlier this month during his monthly 101.5 FM radio show, "Ask the Governor," noting that the average New Jersey property tax bill rose 70 percent during the decade before he became governor.

Since the cap was created in 2010 during Christie's first year as governor, the average bill has risen 2 percent or less, he said.

"We've cut by two-thirds the increase in property taxes. No one ever thought that was possible," Christie said. "And if we put the other reforms in place that I wanted but the Legislature would not do, we'd be at zero."

State Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, said the cap alone is not enough to control property taxes, and that Christie has failed to fully restore Homestead property tax credits for seniors, disabled, and low- and moderate-income residents.

The credit is about half of what they were under Christie's predecessor, Democrat Jon S. Corzine.

Singleton said boosting the tax credits could have allowed some residents to see a net decrease in their property tax bills rather than an increase. 

"We haven't kept up with that end of the bargain," he said Friday.

Singleton also has pushed bipartisan legislation to boost state aid to municipalities for property tax relief through the restoration of energy tax receipts that the state collects in lieu of taxes from utilities and energy companies that use public property for infrastructure.

Christie has vetoed the legislation, arguing that the Legislature should focus on passing reforms to control local spending.

"The governor has shorted homeowners on Homestead rebates, and walked away from restoring energy tax receipts," Singleton said. "You compound all that, it makes for a dose of bad medicine."

Cerra also said the league continues to lobby for the return of more energy tax receipt funds.

"It's significant property tax relief that was collected locally and not being fully returned," he said. "It certainly compounds the problems." 

Republicans in the Legislature also have called for additional reforms to control property taxes. Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick has called for the Legislature to devote a special session for that purpose.