The average property-tax bill in southeastern New Jersey increased 24 percent in 2010, following reductions and delays in the state tax-relief program, data released earlier this month show.

The typical property-tax bill actually increased by 25 percent or more in 23 area municipalities — mostly smaller towns, but also including Millville and Dennis, Middle, Lower and Barnegat townships — an analysis by The Press of Atlantic City of Department of Community Affairs data shows.

DCA data show the average 2010 property-tax bill — including municipal, school and county taxes — was $4,709 for the 68 municipalities in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, southern Ocean and Burlington counties. This represented an average increase of $170, or 4 percent, from 2009. 

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But when 2009 tax bills are adjusted to reflect property-tax relief paid that year to the typical homeowner, the increase in the average bill was 24 percent. Average area tax bills in 2010 were $1,080 higher than the net 2009 tax bills after rebate checks went out. The reason for the difference: The state did not send rebate checks in 2010. Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature revamped the program to save the cost of issuing checks and will provide a credit instead.

Qualifying property owners — mostly senior citizens — will receive a credit for last year’s unpaid state tax relief on their property-tax bill this May. However, that credit will be for only 25 percent of the relief homeowners would get under a fully funded program, Treasury spokesman Andrew Pratt said, adding state officials plan to increase that level to 50 percent the following year.

Some area residents and officials said that is not enough.

“A lot of seniors are on fixed incomes and relied on those rebates to get by,” said Hank Gibney, 79, of Little Egg Harbor Township, Ocean County. “Without them, it’s a whole different ball game.”

In Little Egg Harbor, where many senior citizens live, the average property-tax bill increased from $4,259 in 2009 to $4,332 last year, an increase of about 2 percent. However, after the average local rebate of $914 lowered the net 2009 tax bill, the amount they paid in taxes actually increased $987, or 23 percent, in one year.

“You have to adjust your way of living. You cut back on the luxuries you have, you go out to dinner a little less … and you’re certainly not going to take that cruise you want to take,” said Gibney, who lives in the Sunrise Bay adult community in the township.

The posh oceanfront community of Longport in Atlantic County had the highest property-tax increase from 2009 to 2010, at $898, which Mayor Nicholas Russo attributed largely to the borough’s share of Atlantic County’s tax levy increasing from 3.5 percent to about 4.5 percent over the past two years.

When 2009 tax obligations reflect the tax relief provided, the average Longport homeowner actually saw the amount they paid in taxes go up $2,076, or 28 percent.

“Longport is a unique town. Approximately 81 percent of our homeowners do not live here full time, but many of the remaining 19 percent are on pensions and many are on fixed incomes. And we’re sensitized to them,” Russo said. “The dynamic is somewhat sad, but it is realistic. And I’ve been telling people who come here that we’re trying to hold the line and we’re coming in under the budget cap. … But our (costs) and our burden to the county have increased. And if the suspension of the rebate has hurt them that badly, then I recommend to them to call their local state legislators.”

The three area municipalities that were affected the most by the suspension of the tax rebates were Commercial Township in Cumberland County, which saw an average property-tax increase of 46 percent; Woodbine in Cape May County, at 41 percent; and Estell Manor in Atlantic County, at 38 percent.

Barnegat Township led the municipalities in southern Ocean County with an increase of $1,519, or 30 percent. The taxpayers of that municipality also are being affected by a township-wide reassessment that slashed Barnegat’s ratable base by $500 million last year.

“Of course we do as much as we can to keep taxes at a minimum and to provide relief to our taxpayers, but there are a lot of factors at play,” said Barnegat Mayor Jeff Melchiondo, adding the township has reduced its work force by 20 percent in the past four years. “It is true that a lot of things that are being handed down from the state are tying the hands of a lot of municipalities with being able to continue to provide services but keeping within that new 2 percent budget cap.”

Some taxpayers say they understand why the suspension of the rebates was necessary.

“The rebate being suspended does hurt seniors because they have less flexibility when it comes to income, especially since Social Security went up basically zero percent,” said Michael Hinchman, president of the Ocean City civic group Fairness in Taxes. “Those who are least able to afford tax increases are getting zinged, but it had to be done.”

Ocean City’s property-tax bills increased by an average of $1,164, or 24 percent, for taxpayers who qualified for the state rebates.

“The state didn’t have any other choice,” Hinchman said. “The reason the governor did what he did is because, unlike most politicians, he has the courage to say ‘no, the state is broke,’ and when you’re broke, you can’t keep paying out money. This finally puts the pressure on the towns, like Ocean City, to finally rationalize and reduce their expenses.”

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