Gov. Chris Christie’s budget announcement last week had relatively good news for local officials.
Aid to schools would rise an average of 9 percent throughout Morris County under the governor’s budget proposal. Every district in Morris would get more state aid in the coming year, with increases ranging from 1 percent in Lincoln Park to 34.7 percent in Mendham Township, which just happens to be Christie’s hometown.
The only aid decrease nearby is in Hopatcong, , although there are some even bigger decreases elsewhere in the state: Wildwood Crest, Monmouth Regional and Seaside Park are among those facing double-digit cuts in aid.
Any increase in aid is, of course, good news.
But the increase is still relative, because any proposed increases still would give just about every school in the state less state aid than they were allocated under former Gov. Jon Corzine’s last budget. In 2009-2010, Corzine budgeted almost $170 million for districts. Christie’s first year in office, he cut that amount by more than a third; statewide, the governor cut nearly $1 billion.
Next year, Christie has proposed nearly $144 million for Morris County schools. That’s still 15.3 percent less than Corzine had budgeted for 2009-10.
Municipalities find themselves in worse shape.
The governor did not propose any increase this year, although officials are grateful not to be facing a reduction in aid. Still, flat funding means no additional money for police and other local services.
Municipal aid also remains lower than it was under Corzine’s last budget, for 2010.
That year, Morris County municipalities got a total of $60.5 million from the state. This year, they are slated to get $48 million, or 20 percent less.
The New Jersey State League of Municipalities is unhappy, and the blame goes beyond Christie’s tenure.
“For over 10 years, regardless of political affiliation, no administration has proposed a budget that honors the promise made to our property taxpayers, that Energy Tax and CMTRA funding would be annually adjusted to account for inflation in municipal costs,” said the league’s statement.
Yet costs do rise and taxpayers have to foot the bill, unless officials take extraordinary measures.
They did that last year. Some municipal and school officials agreed to wage freezes. A few actually took pay cuts.
Because of these sacrifices and the state’s tight 2 percent cap on property tax growth, many Morris municipalities kept property taxes flat or even reduced them slightly. And Morris voters approved every single school budget for the first time in recent memory; 80 percent passed statewide.
The vote won’t be an issue in the vast majority of districts this year. According to the New Jersey School Boards Association, 86 percent of the state’s districts have taken advantage of a new law that allows them to move the school board elections to November and eliminate the school budget vote provided the state within the mandated cap. Notably, the Morris School District and Pequannock are among those maintaining their April elections, giving people a say on spending, as well as a non-partisan vote for board members.
With the state aid numbers only just released, budget discussions are just beginning. What kind of property tax changes this year will bring remain to be seen. But anyone who cares—and that’s really everyone, isn’t it—can have his say, if not at the polls, at municipal council and school board meetings.