Posted May 1, 2012

'Keep the Promise' on Capitol Day

Residents focus on property tax relief


George "Lee" Lampron should be happy. The beautiful Victorian home he purchased in Ocean Grove in 1993 for just $78,000 has more than quadrupled in value.

Unfortunately, his property taxes have almost tripled, rising from $2,600 to $7,106. He now pays more in monthly property taxes than he pays toward his mortgage.

That's put Lampron, 62, in an uncomfortable position. After spending most of his working career in the wholesale flower industry, he had two strokes and a heart attack. He now lives on Social Security and disability insurance, which barely cover his basic living expenses. He has considered filing a tax appeal but says he can't afford it. "I'd have to get an attorney, and I don't have the money. So I pay what I have to pay," he said.

Lampron is not alone. New Jersey's property taxes, per capita, are the nation's highest, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, whose most recent data is from 2010.

"Property taxes just keep going higher and higher. It makes it difficult for people on a fixed income to maintain their homes, their health and themselves," said Irvin Breslow, of the Township of Union, a former Newark school administrator who is now AARP membership coordinator for Union County.

In the past two years, the state has cut tax relief programs many residents use to ease their property tax burden. The net property tax homeowners pay, after all the rebates and credits are taken into account, is 20 percent higher now than it was in 2009, according to the state Department of Community Affairs. The average New Jersey homeowner paid $7,519 in net property taxes last year. In 2009, that figure was $6,244.

Meet at the Capitol on June 7

Fully restoring the state's property tax relief programs this session will be a major focus of AARP New Jersey's Day at the Capitol on June 7. It's a chance for the governor and legislators to hear about the issues most important to the state's nearly 1.3 million members.

"The reality is, public officials know that seniors vote, and AARP membership comprises [nearly] 50 percent of all people over the age of 50. That's a huge statistic," said Doug Johnston, AARP New Jersey advocacy manager.

At least 300 members, many wearing red AARP T-shirts, are expected. They'll hear from state officials and lawmakers, and many will visit legislators in their offices. The theme will be "Keep the Promise."

"AARP members are coming back to the New Jersey State House to call on Gov. [Chris] Christie (R) and legislative leaders to keep their promises — promises to deliver direct property tax relief; promises to reform our long-term care system; and promises to protect consumers from fraud," said Dave Mollen, AARP New Jersey state president.

Members have reason to be optimistic about this year's event. AARP's top budget priority last year was restoring the Senior Property Tax Freeze, a popular program that reimburses eligible homeowners who are over 65 or disabled for the difference between the amount of property taxes paid in the first year of eligibility and the amount paid in the current year. About 203,100 use the program.

In 2010, Christie cut any further enrollment and froze reimbursements near 2009 levels, even though property taxes continued to go up. But last year, after hearing from AARP members, lawmakers and the governor restored most of the cuts. However, the income eligibility, which had been dropped from $80,000 to $70,000 per person, remains at that lower level.

This year, AARP wants to see the income eligibility on the Senior Freeze program raised and another popular tax relief program fully restored. The Homestead Benefit Program, which benefits 475,400 seniors and disabled citizens, enables eligible homeowners to receive a homestead benefit as a credit to their property tax bill. The program was cut by about 70 percent in 2010. Some of the cuts were restored last year, but funding for the program still stands at about half of what it was in 2009. And Christie's budget proposal for fiscal 2013 maintains those cuts.

"Last year, he restored a significant part of those property tax relief program dollars, but it's still half of what it was under Corzine," Johnston said, referring to former Gov. Jon Corzine (D). "So that will be our main priority: to get the legislature and the governor to restore the Homestead Credit Property Tax Relief program."

Johnston is hopeful. When Christie was running for governor in 2009, he participated in a tele-town hall at AARP's office in Princeton and criticized Corzine for reducing the Homestead program and pledged to restore Corzine's cuts.

"That's what he said in 2009, and we are hopeful that in 2012, he will fulfill that promise," Johnston said.

Copyright 2012