Summit Common Council
John Dougherty (R) + Matt Gould (D)
New Jersey has the highest property tax burden in the nation and Summit is among the highest taxed municipalities in the state. If elected, where would reducing property taxes rank among your policy priorities?
DOUGHERTY: Second only to traffic safety.
GOULD: Property taxes are too high in Summit, especially for two groups: senior citizens on a fixed income; and property owners who build new construction. Moreover, Summit contributes too much to Union County, considering that we are roughly 4% of the population of the county but are responsible for 10% of the tax revenue.
The property tax issue is a complex one, and we must find a way to continue to deliver the high level of service that Summit’s residents deserve while simultaneously lowering taxes.
A decade ago, residential taxes accounted for about 75% of Summit’s total income, and that number is now up to 82% and climbing. It’s not a good balance, and is not conducive to lowering taxes. Therefore, it is critical that we focus on expanding commercial rateables, while maintaining the character of our community.
We must also take a different tack with Union County. For years, Common Council has fought with the County about Summit’s contribution. Instead of continuing with this strategy, we need to develop a real plan for rebalancing Summit’s contribution including whether the current equalization ratios should still be applied given the growth of other towns in the county.
Are there changes in local tax policy (e.g. decreases, incentives, etc.) you believe can help revitalize and grow the Downtown?
DOUGHERTY: It is my understanding that no tax abatements are allowed or offered in Summit. The only option a property owner has to lower his tax bill is to seek a re-assessment of his assessed value. So there are no incentives for a property owner to allow his property to remain vacant.
I would look for ways to cut our operating expenses in town. There are over 500 separate municipalities in New Jersey. Each duplicates the same separate local municipal departments. This is an unsustainable model of government. There are opportunities to share some services with other towns and cut costs. This was successfully accomplished with our recently created shared dispatch center. I will look to identify these opportunities and reduce the burden on the tax payers. We should concentrate on what we can do locally to hold down expenses. Last year our municipal tax rate was 1.4% and the school tax rate was .84%.
GOULD: I have two main ideas here. First, we should create an Economic Development Committee that will allow Council Members to work with City staff, business owners, and other stakeholders to spur more growth in Summit’s downtown. Consolidating this function within one committee will also allow Council to ensure that our tax policies strongly encourage commercial property owners to fill vacancies quickly.
Second, we need to increase our commercial rateables by having Council and the Mayor work together to implement careful and thoughtful growth on Broad Street as described in the Master Plan. Bringing new businesses into town will be great for residents as well as for the tax base.
Nationally, only New York, Alaska and D.C. spend more per student on K-12 education than New Jersey. In Summit last year, our school district spent $19,782 per student (the state average was $20,385). Going forward, should we spend more, less or roughly the same on K-12 education?
DOUGHERTY: I would not take away any funding from our schools. It is one of our greatest assets. However I am not for All Day Kindergarten. I do not believe there is enough evidence to support that it makes a difference to student’s success at this time. I based this on my observations as a father of four sons, not an educator. What I have seen that makes a difference in student success and would be willing to increase funding for are three areas: ACT/SAT test prep, strong varsity sports programs and more available AP classes. Strengths in these areas made the difference in successful college applications.
GOULD: We cannot skimp on education. As you mention in the question, we are below the state average, and I commend the Board of Education on this achievement. Education is one of the three pillars on which our property values are based (the other two being the downtown and the commute), and we must ensure that our school system remain strong in order to sustain our property values.
Summit shoulders more of the county tax burden (per household) than any other municipality in Union County. As a reference point, despite having comparable population sizes, Union County levies over $100 million more in taxes than Morris County does. Do you believe Summit gets its fair share of services from the county? Would you support efforts to reduce county taxes and spending?
- Union County taxes are the biggest threat to our property taxes. We sent over 40 Million dollars to the county last year and only received back 11 cents on the dollar. Over the last 8 years taxes to the county have risen 46%; the city’s operating budget has only risen 6% in the same period. This trend will on continue if not acted upon.
- Our taxes will also be impacted if the federal government removes our ability to deduct local and state taxes from our federal return.
- If Phil Murphy the democratic candidate for governor should win he said he would raise our taxes 1.3 billion state wide to fund projects.
I believe we should do the following:
- Continue to attend the Freeholder meeting, question their budget. Ask questions like why we need a new public golf course and clubhouse in Scotch Plains when a new one already exists in Kenilworth. A short time ago Summit elected officials were able to compel the county to sell the Runnells Hospital property that had been a drain on the budget.
- Force the county to have a forensic audit of its budget by an outside accounting firm that has no conflict of interest with county government.
- Form a coalition of elected officials from the western municipalities in our county to lobby for change and transparency as a group.
- The western municipalities lack representation on the Freeholder board. Freeholders are elected in a “at-large” and are all elected from the most of the eastern more urban municipalities and are all members of the democratic party. We should seek signatures from our constituents after an off election year to for a referendum to make Freeholder election be structured by districts. It would not matter what party these District Freeholders were members of; at least we would have representation.
GOULD: As stated above, Summit is roughly 4% of the population of Union County but is responsible for 10% of the tax revenue. This is not equitable. I wholeheartedly support efforts to reduce county taxes and spending.