Towns get bad news on state aid

By JANE ROH Courier-Post Staff February 25, 2010

TRENTON Municipal officials hoping for less bad news in a grim budget environment were told Wednesday by Gov. Chris Christie that the state would be slashing their aid.

"I'd love to be able to tell you that municipal aid will stay level, but it's not," Christie said. "So you need to prepare for what's coming down the line, because at the end of the day we don't have a choice but to do these things."

Speaking before mayors at the League of Municipalities' annual Mayor's Legislative Day, Christie attacked the budget of predecessor Jon S. Corzine, laid into familiar foes such as public employee pay packages and the Council on Affordable Housing, and gently scolded lawmakers for lethargy on the long-running issue of property taxes.

It was a speech that didn't sit well with several local mayors.

"It was a complete waste of time," said Mayor Fred Grant, of East Greenwich in Gloucester County. "The governor came in and started off the speech saying he was happy to have a frank conversation with the mayors of New Jersey, and he just gave a speech telling us there are going to be cuts all over the board and didn't take any input."

Grant added that Christie spends too much time blaming municipalities for the state's budget crisis.

The governor compared the situation officials in New Jersey find themselves in to the 1969 film "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

"When they were running and got to the edge of that cliff, they had a seminal decision to make -- are they going to get shot from behind or are they going to take the chance to jump off the cliff and hope that when they land, they survive. I don't suggest either are attractive options, but they are the options we have left," Christie said. "We have to hold hands at every level of government and jump off a cliff. I firmly believe that we will land and we will land fine. The ruination of New Jersey's economy and the quality of life we want all our citizens to have is certain if we don't take this course."

Gloucester Township Mayor David Mayer praised Christie's "good and direct" speech, but complained that Christie was more concerned about his projected $11 billion budget deficit than with the predicament municipalities face.

"I don't think we need to jump off a cliff. What we need to do is keep our taxpayers from falling off," the former assemblyman said. "He's not solving the problem. He's solving the state's budget problem. I don't know if that's leadership."

Christie repeatedly promised to give municipalities "the tools" to combat higher taxes, such as ending binding arbitration, eliminating COAH, more changes to public workers' pensions and benefits, and cracking down on state boards and authorities. He has issued executive orders to begin that process, and on Monday the Senate passed a package of pension and benefits reforms.

But officials packed into the State House committee room said they weren't just there to listen to Christie speak. They were there to get answers on those feared municipal aid cuts and appeal for state lawmakers' help in minimizing anticipated property tax hikes.

The League of Municipalities has said that the best it was hoping for was for Christie to announce regular municipal aid would remain flat. Though Christie delivered bad news, municipalities will still be squirming until he announces how much will be cut during his budget speech on March 16. He has already informed school districts to expect cuts of up to 15 percent.

"We need to do cuts in (state) government spending. We need to make sure the cuts that we implement are on our obligations and our budgets -- not passing that burden onto local communities that's going to drive up property taxes," said Assemblyman Louis D. Greenwald, D-Camden, chairman of the budget committee.

He advocates giving municipalities the authority to diversify their tax revenues, which would allow some to implement local sales taxes.

Many mayors warn that substantial decreases from Trenton will force them to lean harder on already overtaxed residents.

In the tri-county area, mayors from East Greenwich, Gloucester Township, Haddonfield, Deptford, and Collingswood attended the conference. Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt is in Florida for his annual month long vacation. On Monday, Chief of Staff Dan Keashen asked council Vice President Sara Lipsett to represent the township. Both Lipsett and Keashen were in attendance.

Reach Jane Roh at (856) 486-2919 or jroh@gannett.com

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