Sen. Sweeney: Let's Cut that 2% School Tax Increase Cap Down to 0%

No, that was no slip of the tongue the other day: Sen. President Sweeney is serious about a zero tax increase cap for municipalities and school districts. From an interview published today with the Times of Trenton Editorial Board:
Ultimately, that’s Sweeney’s zero tax cap goal — exhaust all other alternatives until leaders in the state’s 565 municipalities and 601 school districts seriously embrace consolidation and extensive use of shared services. The vice grip would tighten each year the cap stays at zero.
“I think it would take three or four years,” Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said during a meeting with The Times of Trenton editorial board last week. “They’ll continue to find ways to be more efficient.”
He expects those that advocate on behalf of municipalities would object strongly to a zero tax cap.
“They should be driven nuts,” Sweeney said. “At least you get to the real cost of government.”
Back in 2010 Gov. Christie signed a law that lowered allowable tax increases for towns and schools  from 4% to 2% in order to rein in property taxes.  At the time officials panicked, but we’ve mostly learned to live with it.  NJEA bargaining units gulped, school boards dug in, and  salary increases dropped from an average of about 4.5% to something close to 2%. Districts continue to  try to cut  budget lines on everything from supplies to energy to transportation to out-of-district special education costs.

But 2010 feels like a long time ago (especially this week) and newly-negotiated  salary increases  are creeping back up, somewhere between 2.5% and 3%, according to the NJ School Boards Association. And, frankly, there’s not that much left to cut.

So a 0% cap would indeed drive everyone nuts.

Would it prompt consolidation of school districts and municipalities, Sweeney’s ultimate solution for NJ's property tax problem? That’s unclear to me. The much-heralded money-saving merger of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough, which Christie boasted about in his State of the State speech last month, didn’t yield nearly as much savings as claimed. That story was broken by Krystal Knapp of Planet Princeton:
The myth that the consolidation of the two Princetons would save $3 million in the town budget was debunked at a Princeton Council meeting last year, when some Princeton officials and consolidation advocates boasted that the consolidated Princeton budget for 2013 was $3 million less than the combined budgets for the two Princetons in 2012.
It turned out that $2.3 million of the $3 million was not actual savings
Municipal consolidation is hard enough. And school district mergers? Despite efforts from governors going way back before Christie, we've had almost no success. Our multiple school board madness (see former Democratic Assembly Speaker Alan Karcher's 1998 book, "NJ's Multiple Municipal Madness") is due, certainly to a rabid home rule culture but also to current state laws governing consolidation of school districts. Under these laws, any merger is a zero sum game where one district is the winner and the other the loser in tax rates. So nobody wants to play.

If Sweeney's serious, he'll need to address those efficiency-deterring state laws and add some incentives, which means getting other legislators on board. Until then, it's just a neat sound bite. But maybe he's serious, which would be refreshing. Even if tax savings turn out to be smaller than advertised, there's other benefits. For more, look at  this recent piece by  Paul Tractenberg,, founder of Education Law Center,  who makes a  great case for county-wide school districts.

Labels: , , , ,