Summit Common Council
Marjorie Fox (D) + Mike Wattick (R)
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?
FOX: Taxes are a major issue in Summit and we need to find a way to make Summit more affordable. First, I will work to ensure that Council spends tax dollars wisely and efficiently. We should focus on “needs” not “wants” or pet projects. Second, I will fight to make sure that property taxes remain as low as possible while preserving the services that Summit residents expect. Seniors on a fixed income face a greater challenge affording property taxes and we should look into tax relief for those who have lived in Summit for a long time. In addition, I will fight to get our fair share of grants and services back from Union County. Finally, we need to expand Summit’s commercial tax base to take some of the tax burden off of residential taxpayers. This does not mean taxing businesses more heavily - we need to grow the commercial tax base through smart redevelopment in the Broad Street Corridor and other areas identified in the Summit Master Plan.
WATTICK: Reducing property taxes ranks second on my list of priorities only behind the physical safety of Summit residents.
Since this campaign has started, I have knocked on over 2000 doors in Ward II. There is no question what the number one concern is among residents is property taxes rising faster than household income. Simply put, too many residents are being forced to leave Summit because of rising property taxes.
My campaign platform is built around a reduction in local property taxes. As a Summit Councilman, I will propose the creation of a volunteer Summit Financial Advisory Committee that would consist of local experts to help us bring down the cost of local government. Summit has several local financial experts that advise businesses all over the world on how to reduce costs and maintain a high level of services. I will lead an effort to harness that expertise to make Summit more affordable.
I will call for strict controls on spending increases and look to renegotiate any current city contract that is deemed unfavorable to the Summit taxpayer. Summit government should operate financially the same way Summit families do, on a budget. Put simply, I believe we need to impose the practice of matching dollars out to dollars in.
Are there changes in local tax policy (e.g. decreases, incentives, etc.) you believe can help revitalize and grow the Downtown?
FOX: To revitalize and grow the downtown, we need to look at tax incentives that allow commercial property owners to benefit from vacant storefronts. Currently, property owners can seek tax abatements for unleased spaces. These incentives should not allow property owners to benefit from tax abatements while stores remain vacant for months or years on end. Many commercial properties in the downtown are owned by family trusts, and these trusts use the losses on vacant properties to offset gains on other properties in their real estate portfolio. We should evaluate these policies and look for ways to ensure that our tax policies encourage commercial landowners to fill vacancies expeditiously.
WATTICK: In 2012, I moved my financial advisory practice to Summit. Being Downtown every day allows me to feel the pulse of what's happening. Our downtown provides a place to shop, socialize and engage with our community. Summit's goal should be to maintain a dynamic and vibrant downtown. We need to be aggressive in attracting and retaining downtown businesses. Main Street retail is under attack from the Internet, but we can still thrive with the proper strategy. Initiatives we should undertake to help our downtown grow and prosper are:
- Revisit permitted uses on first floor spaces in the Central Retail Business District. (CRBD). At a minimum, relax the office and ancillary use restrictions on some of the less foot traffic centric perimeter areas like the "ends" of Springfield Avenue, Maple Street and Summit Avenue.
- Make the process for opening a new business as transparent and efficient as possible. Publish the rules and regulations for obtaining building permits and Certificates of Occupancy (CO's) on a single page. Entrepreneur's approaching the front desk at City Hall for the first time can become more educated on the process from the outset.
- Work with Summit Downtown Inc. (SDI) to assign someone within SDI to "OWN" the responsibility for attracting and retaining downtown retailers. The best candidate would understand how to succeed in today’s "Amazon Prime" business environment.
- Implement low-cost, high-value downtown beautification projects. Let's keep downtown Summit beautiful with maintained tree wells, flower pots and public seating areas to give ourselves an advantage over competitor towns.
I will work collaboratively with our entire community to implement these ideas and the best ideas from our updated Master Plan. Working together we can make Summit's future as bright as our past!
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?
FOX: The amount spent per student may seem high but our school board should be commended for the good job it has done holding down increases in school costs. What is most important to me is whether our students are receiving a quality education for the money we spend on them. I have met many young families who moved to Summit because they heard about the great reputation of our schools. I have met other families with at least one member who grew up in Summit. They have told me they returned to Summit because they want their children to experience the quality of life that they enjoyed when growing up and foremost in creating that quality of life was their experience in the public school system. A big part of the cost of education is the families who move out of Summit when their youngest child graduates high school. If they stay in town for only a few years, the taxes they pay will help offset the cost of educating their children. We need to address this issue and see if it is possible to retain some of these families after their children graduate.
WATTICK: Summit has an amazing school district, which is one of the main reasons families move to Summit. The fact that Summit’s average spend per student is below the state average, while its academic performance is significantly above state average is a testament to the hard work of our administration and teachers. I would always encourage our Board of Education to continue to look for savings in order to reduce the burden on our taxpayers, however, I would caution against cutting too deeply and impacting the quality of our schools. If I were elected to council, I would use my voice to encourage the state fix our broken school funding formula. NJ didn’t have an income tax until 1976 when the legislature decided they would tax 2% strictly to fund public schools. Well now our state tax is closer to 8%....and the formula for distributing aid is broken. Summit receives just $450/student in state aid per year, while cities such as Jersey City receive approximately $15,000 per student! This is a broken system that must be fixed, and I will fight for Summit to receive more of its fair share to fund our schools and maintain one of our greatest assets.
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?
FOX: I believe that Union County takes too large a share of our tax revenue. My job, if elected, will be to act as an advocate for Summit. That being said, Summit’s Common Council has no control over Union County government. We need to persuade, rather than demand help from the county. In the past, our Council members insulted the Union County Freeholders and made them the scapegoat for our financial issues. It is very easy to point the finger at Union County but it doesn’t solve the problem. More recently, some of our mayors and Council members have taken a different approach. They worked with Union County, identified projects that are beneficial to the county as well as the city and have advocated for increased funding of projects in Summit. It worked and is continuing to work. The more we can convince county Freeholders that what is good for Summit is also good for the county, the better off we will all be.
WATTICK: As former President of the Summit Taxpayers Association, I’ve spent years analyzing our property tax components and how our collected dollars are spent. The data is as follows:
- 2016 City of Summit Budget was $133.5MM
- 66.6MM (50%) spent on Schools & School Debt
- 38.5MM (29%) spent on Union County assessment
- 28.4MM (21%) spent on running the City of Summit
In the eleven years 2006-2016, the three main components of the City of Summit Budget increased:
- School Budget increased by 33%
- City of Summit Municipal increased by 26%
- Union County Assessment increased by 64%
The nine Union County Freeholders are all elected at large, all Democrats and all paid a salary and benefits. Democrats have had control of the Union County Freeholder Board for at least the last thirty years. The Freeholders are elected to represent all of Union County. However, since they are all from the eastern part of the county, Summit has very little to no input into how our collected tax dollars are spent. Don't forget, Summit taxpayers were assessed $38.5MM by Union County in 2016, and have been assessed over $295MM over the last eleven years!
Summit’s Union County taxes have reached a tipping point. Those taxes are crowding out critical capital expenditures needed in our schools and City. The City of Summit needs to use all means necessary to manage our taxes paid to Union County. In studying the Union County Budget, I’ve concluded a thorough analysis of where our taxes go is needed. If elected I have pledged to raise private funds to conduct an audit of our Union County taxes. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Only by conducting a complete forensic audit will we gain the necessary tools to fight our Union County tax bill.
I plan to use the higher profile and microphone of Common Council to affect the desperately needed change in our Union County relationship. Additionally, I will work to form a working coalition of elected officials from towns in the western half of Union County (new Providence, Berkeley Heights, Westfield, Roselle, etc.). Working as one voice will greatly enhance our ability to see a better return on the taxes we send each year to Elizabeth.
On February 24th 2017, I organized a Summit Taxpayers Association “Night of Action” to rally a group of Summit leaders and residents to address our Union County Freeholders. Over two dozen Summit residents attended to voice concern over the steep rise of the Union County portion of our property tax bill. You can view video of the night here: https://youtu.be/Bv5VAJ-M9Ac
I am the only candidate with the necessary financial and activist background to effectively take on and bring change to Union County government. Too many Summit residents are being forced from their home due to their high and rising property tax bill. As your councilman, I will bring an even higher level of energy and commitment to this task than I did as a private citizen.