WILDWOOD — Ask resident Ginny Caruso if she’s struggling with taxes and she won’t hesitate to answer.
“Yes, I am. $7,000 a year and it’s killing me,” Caruso said.
Caruso, who shares a home here with her adult son, was among the hundreds of voters who cast ballots Tuesday in favor of recalling two of the city’s three commissioners.
“We need a change,” she said. “Everything has to change.”
The change she’s looking for is in her tax bill.
This city of slightly more than 5,000 residents has the highest tax rate in the county at $1.83 per $100 of assessed value and its average tax bill of $4,381 is higher than most.
Edward Harshaw and Al Brannen, the top vote getters in Tuesday’s recall election, used residents’ anger over high taxes as a way to gain support. Their billboards asked simply, “Hey Wildwood, had enough taxes yet?”
The answer — the recall of Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. and Commissioner Bill Davenport — was a resounding yes.
The recall’s success echoes the state’s gubernatorial election, in which Republican Chris Christie, now governor-elect, defeated the incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine largely due to the state’s growing property tax burden.
“People are pissed off about taxes, and they are pissed off because they are being told that if you want to cut taxes you have to get rid of your town and they’re not having it,” said Rick Shaftan, a conservative activist who worked for a rival Republican candidate in last year’s gubernatorial primary. He sensed the making of a tax revolt.
“There’s a lot under the surface. They’ve managed to hold a lot of it back this year by pushing it off until the next year,” he said, “But next year is now.”
Troiano and Davenport had just 17 months left in office before the city’s next election in May 2011, but Harshaw called the recall election necessary now.
“The people couldn’t wait. You have people losing their homes to tax sales,” Harshaw said.
The city’s tax bill, Brannen said, had “gotten difficult to justify.” In September, City Commission adopted a budget with an 18.2-cent increase in the municipal tax.
Brannen and Harshaw said Wednesday that they don’t expect to reduce Wildwood’s tax rate by the time the May 2011 election arrives, but they believe if they can hold the line and prevent the city’s tax bills from increasing any further they will have achieved some measure of success.
“How do you fix it? By just being smart. You live within a budget,” Brannen said.
But the two, who have between them run everything from a motel to an ice-cream shop, acknowledged that running a city and running a private business are very different enterprises.
“In private business, you’re the boss, but in the city you have a lot fo bosses called taxpayers,” Harshaw said.
A poll in late September by Monmouth University found that 59 percent of state residents thought the local property tax was the least fair tax they pay.
Nearly two-thirds polled believed waste and fraud were the top reasons for their high taxes, while more than half also identified high salaries for public employees and the profusion of school districts and municipalities.
But will that translate into other local government recalls?
“Overall, recall elections (in New Jersey) are pretty rare,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. “When people are really frustrated and see no other recourse, you get what happened in Wildwood.”
However, Redlawsk said that high property taxes are nothing new, and recall elections happen for other reasons, not just high taxes.
“Twenty years ago, everybody was complaining about property taxes (in New Jersey),” Redlawsk said. “It’s a constant complaint, and it’s only gotten worse.”
Redlawsk said that Wildwood probably had an easier time ousting Troiano and Davenport because the town has a reasonably low number of voters, so it was easier to get the number of signatures required for a recall.
But at least one other town, Point Pleasant Beach, Ocean County, is considering recalling its leaders because of taxation issues, said Matthew Wang , staff attorney for the state League of Municipalities.
Atlantic City attorney Dan Gallagher, who worked with the recall petitioners in Wildwood, is also involved with Point Pleasant Beach. He said that people from three or four additional towns have briefly talked with him about recalls. Ultimately, he said it comes down to what people can afford to pay.
“If you have a budget where you keep on hiring new people, or filling in old positions, and giving people 5 percent raises across the board, and full benefits, no budget, in any municipality, can sustain that,” Gallagher said. “It’s a system that can’t work. People are revolting. They want change.”
Staff writers Ben Leach and Derek Harper contributed to this report.
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