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NJ Senate panel tackles property tax measures

By Angela Delli Santi
Associated Press Writer / July 19, 2010

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TRENTON, N.J.—With the New Jersey Legislature being pressed to endorse measures that will help municipalities control costs, a Senate panel on Monday considered bills allowing local governments to furlough police and firefighters and post legal notices online instead of in newspapers.

Public worker unions told lawmakers that authorizing governments to temporarily lay off police and firefighters tramples on collective bargaining rights and could compromise public safety.

"This bill chooses economics over public safety," said Bill Lavin, president of the Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association.

Several Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee appeared to agree. Sen. Sandra Cunningham of Jersey City, said layoffs and furloughs wind up costing her city more money in overtime. Sen. Brian Stack of Union City, said it already trimmed its police force to the minimum level to maintain public safety.

The bill is one of dozens of Republican Gov. Chris Christie's proposals to help towns, counties and school districts keep within a 2 percent cap on spending and property taxes. Christie signed the cap into law this month and urged the Legislature to consider the other ways to manage costs.

The cap is designed to curb property tax increases. Because certain costs that are outside the cap, like employee pensions and health care premiums, it's unlikely that tax increases will be held to 2 percent a year.

New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the country, averaging nearly $7,300 per household. The tax burden is often cited as a reason businesses and residents leave the state.

The Senate is considering the governor's proposals during summer sessions. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver has assigned the bills to members for research, with possible action in the fall.

Some of the bills are expected to meet resistance in the Democrat-controlled Legislature. One limits pay outs of unused sick and vacation time for current public workers, which has prompted Sen. Paul Sarlo, the chair of the Budget panel, to ask whether the bill is constitutional.

Because police and firefighters are union workers, furloughs currently are negotiated. The bill discussed Monday would give furlough power to local governments. Lawmakers heard testimony on the legislation, but did not take a vote.

Bill Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said relief from state-mandated costs is essential for the new tax cap to work. The League supports the furlough bill.

"Without these kinds of bills, it's not going to provide the management reforms and mandates relief towns need to manage their costs" Dressel said.

He said the bill allows towns to stagger furloughs, and perhaps save emergency services jobs, in a difficult economy.

"It's a management principle that should be made locally, not from the gold dome on West State Street, as to who can be furloughed, who can't be furloughed," he said. "Let the people who are going to take the political heat on their taxes going up make the management decisions."

Over the opposition of publishers, the committee endorsed a bill estimated to save New Jersey municipalities at least $8 million a year combined by allowing them to post legal notices online instead of in newspapers. Newspaper publishers told lawmakers that the bill would hurt, or cripple, them economically, and that it would be bad for government transparency because not everyone uses the Internet.

The committee approved the bill unanimously, though some members express concerns over limiting residents' ability to see legal notices by making them available only online.