Spring is here and South Jersey municipalities are forming and approving their 2020 budgets as usual. This time, though, they’re forced to set out a fiscal blueprint for a year that will be as extraordinarily challenging as it is unpredictable.
As families also are probably doing, nearly all municipalities are shaping up their finances the best they can to prepare to respond to the damage to them and their citizens from the coronavirus and the shutdown to slow it down.
The heartening result is that budget stories in The Press are reporting many instances of local governments showing great restraint on spending and property taxes.
Many avoided tax increases, others keep them minimal, and some even managed to keep reducing spending and taxes.
Among them was Brigantine City Council, which last week approved a budget that cut spending by $259,000 and decreased the municipal part of the property tax for the fifth consecutive year. That streak is almost as long as Galloway Township Council’s sixth straight year of tax decreases with its budget approved last month.
Northfield City Council also managed to reduce its property-tax rate slightly. Middle Township Committee and Hamilton Township Committee each enacted budgets that kept the local purpose tax rate from rising. Linwood City Council is spending $70,000 more than last year, but it too doesn’t need to increase its tax rate.
Most towns have taken advantage of the state allowing them, in response to the widespread unemployment and other stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, to give residents an interest-free grace period on paying their municipal tax.
That will delay their revenues and add uncertainty — sadly, some of that revenue may not be coming later either if foreclosures and other personal financial crises intervene.
Then eventually municipal governments must brace for homeowners and businesses seeking reductions in their property assessments — just when Atlantic County was reaching stability after long leading the nation in foreclosures after the severe recession of 2007-09.
Brigantine Deputy Mayor Vince Sera could have been speaking for all municipal officials when he said, “It’s very hard to anticipate the economic challenges the city is going to face in 2020.”
To help residents, businesses and the towns themselves, Brigantine has asked Gov. Phil Murphy to extend the grace period for all property tax collections, not just municipal ones, to June 1. If the governor doesn’t include county and school taxes in the grace period, municipalities may be hard pressed to meet their obligation to deliver that tax money on time.
We hope school districts follow the example of municipalities and show restraint in budgeting. School taxes are responsible for most of New Jersey’s nation-highest property taxes and they should have mercy on taxpayers in this lockdown downturn.