April 3, 2009

Bill would reimburse unfunded mandate

Courier-Post Staff

A pair of state assemblymen introduced legislation Thursday that would reimburse municipalities for what some local officials have called a painful annual loss in local property taxes due to a state-mandated property tax exemption for fully disabled veterans.

Driven by a March 30 Courier-Post article, Jack Conners and Herb Conaway, both D-Burlington, said it is only fair to end that unfunded mandate, which costs towns tens of thousands of dollars a year.

"The commitment the state has made to 100 percent disabled veterans is an important one. But in times where towns are struggling and property taxes are rising, we must not deprive our localities of needed funding," Conaway said in a released statement.

To reimburse municipalities, the state would have to find about $37.5 million, the amount the benefit cost towns statewide in 2008. The benefit cost municipalities in the tri-county area nearly $9 million in lost property tax revenue.

Some local officials have said they fully support the program, despite their lost revenue, but it's time to be reimbursed.

Gloucester Township Mayor Cindy Rau-Hatton and Washington Township Mayor Matt Lyons said it's nice to get recognition of an obligation that towns have to endure and to have a chance to stop losing funds.

"It's only fair to be repaid, if the state's mandating it," said Rau-Hatton. "They're pushing the burden onto us and we have no one to push it onto but the taxpayers."

In 2008, Gloucester Township had the third-highest tally in the tri-county area, with 95 totally disabled veterans in the program, which exempted them from $121,248 in property tax revenue.

The tri-county municipality with the most veteran exemptions last year was Willingboro with 202, costing the borough more than $1 million in revenue. With 65 totally disabled veterans in the program, Washington Township lost $76,417 in tax revenue last year.

Conners, Conway and Lyons said a problem with the exemption is that the burden is not evenly shared by towns across the state.

"Towns should not suffer based on their geographic locations, nor should disabled veterans, whose great sacrifices to our country often prevents them from being able to work, be deprived of an essential benefit," Conners said. "By ending this unfunded mandate, we can allocate the cost evenly and provide substantial benefits to towns that will alleviate the overall property tax burden across the entire state."

State Sen. James Beach, D-Cherry Hill, who plans to be the prime Senate sponsor, said the bill exemplifies the state's ongoing dedication to its veterans.

"That commitment is strengthened by fairly funding the program in a way that helps alleviate property taxes," Beach said.

State officials couldn't be reached Thursday evening for comment.

Reach Jeremy Rosen at (856) 486-2456 or jrosen@camden.gannett.com

Link to original article.