Ever since Hurricane Sandy, Doris Sanza’s part-time job as Downe Township’s tax assessor has been a full-time job calculating how much was lost — and how much everyone else will have to pay for it.
Final tallies are due in January, and so far, Sanza has estimated the 1,585-person town sustained at least $2.5 million to $3 million in damage, with the possibility of more to come.
“It’s going to hit hard,” Sanza said of next year’s taxes. “It’s already hard enough for the rest of the taxpayers.”
Local property taxes in one of the most heavily taxed states in the nation are all but guaranteed to rise next year as New Jersey recovers from one of the costliest natural disasters in its history.
Counties, municipalities and schools have few ways to fund their operations beyond property taxes. And it was the most valuable properties along the shore, which historically pay the biggest tax bills, that Sandy hit the hardest.
“It’s about value,” said Diane Hesley, the Association of Municipal Assessors of New Jersey’s Atlantic County president. “Where is the majority of our value? It’s sitting on our shoreline. That’s why (the hurricane is) catastrophic on so many levels.”
People in these already hard-hit towns will see their taxes rise when the municipal tax burden is supported by fewer homes. And people in towns far from the shore will have to pay more, because there will be fewer taxpayers to foot the bill for county governments and regional school districts.
“To the extent that anybody’s assessment is being reduced, everybody else’s taxes have to go up,” said Keith Szendrey, assistant to Atlantic County Tax Administrator Marge Schott.
How much, however, is yet untold.
Preliminary reports from the Federal Emergency Management Agency last month indicated almost 72,000 homes in New Jersey had some damage. More than 500 of those were destroyed. These figures are expected to change.
Ocean County had 40,001 homes “affected” by the storm, the minimal threshold, and saw 420 destroyed, according to FEMA. In southern Ocean County, Long Beach Island accounted for almost four-fifths of the 18,353 “affected” homes and two-thirds of the 61 destroyed homes.
In Atlantic County, 10,118 of the 10,155 homes — more than 99 percent — that FEMA estimated were “affected” by the storm were in shore towns. FEMA did not list any Atlantic County home as destroyed.
FEMA said Cape May had 7,137 “affected” homes and none destroyed, while in Cumberland County the agency reported one damaged home in Fairfield Township, even though the storm battered communities along the Delaware Bay.
Homeowners have through Jan. 9 to report any damage to their municipal assessors before the final values are set. Otherwise, they must wait until the April 1 tax appeal deadline to challenge the assessments.
Local assessors say many property owners, some living out of state, have not yet sought reductions. This adds uncertainty to next year’s tax base.
In Cape May County, Ocean City sustained the most storm damage and has the highest tax base. City Finance Director Frank Donato said as many as 5,000 properties may have enough damage to reduce their values. But, he said, the land is frequently more valuable than the structure.
Ocean City is still contending with hundreds of tax appeals every year following the collapse of the housing market. An ongoing partial reassessment will likely lower assessed values on about 9,000 properties, taking $1 billion from the city’s total ratable base.
“Any reduction from storm damage is going to be minor compared to those problems,” he said.
The role of federal money adds to the uncertainty.
Gov. Chris Christie asked FEMA last week to reimburse the state $36.8 billion for storm costs.
“You know, it’s got to be paid for,” Christie said. “There’s no magic money tree. But I think most people’s towns will recognize that if they believe that the money is being spent reasonably and responsibly to rebuild their towns, they’ll be happy to do it.”
But the request comes as Republicans and Democrats remain locked in battle over the so-called “fiscal cliff,” the spending cuts and tax increases automatically set to take effect if no long-term deficit reduction plan is agreed to before Jan. 1.
Disaster-aid plans allow President Barack Obama to seek another $5.4 billion in aid on top of $7.1 billion approved as part of a six-month government funding plan. Lawmakers hope to get the money during the current lame-duck session, although any additional funds would have to wait until 2013. Sandy funding may also be wrapped into a budget agreement.
“There’s still a lot of information that we don’t know” about FEMA and others issues, said Bill Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, a local-government advocacy group. “There are still a lot of unknowns out there.”
The state offered to help local governments that may feel financially overwhelmed post-Sandy. It stressed in post-Sandy communications with schools, towns and counties that no New Jersey town has declared bankruptcy since the Great Depression. It also warned such a declaration would affect neighboring communities’ borrowing costs.
The state Department of Community Affairs’ office of Local Government Services issued seven Sandy-related bulletins. On Nov. 9, the office wrote, “New Jersey and its municipalities recognize that payment of debt service is, along with protecting life and property and assisting those in need, the highest priority of government.”
In an email, DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan wrote, “Hurricane Sandy’s impact on municipal budgets and property taxes is still being reviewed and will depend on a number of factors, including how quickly (FEMA) reimburses local governments for storm-related costs and makes funds available to help address loss of tax-generating ratables.”
Christie’s executive orders have allowed towns to use money otherwise set aside for snow removal, extend the deadlines for quarterly tax collections and remove “reasonable” storm recovery costs under the 2 percent cap on property tax increases.
The last action may keep towns from laying off staff to pay for recovery. But it also means the tax cap will not limit many towns.
State officials have promised help to towns that need to borrow in the wake of the storm. Ryan said few towns, including Cape May County’s North Wildwood and Ocean County’s Harvey Cedars and Lavallette, have issued storm-related debt.
The Associated Press and Staff Writer Lee Procida contributed to this report.
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