Chris Christie was elected in 2009 on a wave of voter discontent. New Jersey had become unaffordable for many residents, and the primary culprit driving up the cost of living was property taxes.
Candidate Christie said he’d change that by lowering taxes. One method he favored was consolidating New Jersey’s 565 towns and 678 school districts. Christie lives in Mendham Township, and he has said the next town over, Mendham Borough, is so close that he could kick a football from his backyard and reach it.
“We have two separate police departments and fire services and all those things we really don't need,” he said. “I think we should consolidate more.”
Property taxes in New Jersey are the highest in the country. The average statewide is more than $8,000 dollars. In Mendham it’s over $18,000 thousand. And it keeps going up, making New Jersey harder and harder to afford.
For decades, politicians and policy wonks have said the sheer number of municipalities is part of the problem.
“The redundancy is just scary,” said Gina Genovese, executive director of Courage to Connect, a nonprofit that helps small towns merge in order to save money and keep property taxes down.
Residents of Mendham Township voted to start talks about a merger, but the referendum was nonbinding. In eight years, only one pair of towns did merge: in Princeton Township and Princeton Borough in 2013.
Genovese said Christie could have done more, by throwing more support behind the issue and offering financial incentives for efficiency like Governor Cuomo in New York. Instead Christie spent a lot of time chasing the spotlight on the national level. “He dropped the ball on a lot of things in New Jersey,” she said.
A voter confronted Christie about this on Election Day last fall.
The classic moment quickly went viral. But Christie countered that, as governor, he couldn’t force the Mendhams to merge. And not everyone sees mergers as the solution. Consolidations are complicated. Jobs have to be cut, debts shared. In some cases statute requires additional bureaucracy just to oversee the newly unified departments.
Mendham Borough mayor Neil Henry said it isn’t worth it. “I really don’t think in the case of Mendham Borough and Mendham Township there’s a whole lot of money to be saved,” he said. (Henry said the Mendhams are sharing some services like fire and first aid.)
Henry gives Christie credit for reigning in property taxes in other ways. He imposed a two percent property tax cap, required public employees to pay more toward their health benefits, and limited salary increases for police and firefighters. “I feel that Governor Christie has done an awesome job controlling property taxes,” he said.
Still, while taxes increased at a slower rate under Christie, they still increased. Towns could get around the tax cap, and the limit on salaries for police and firefighters just expired. Many people who were struggling to make it in New Jersey when Christie took office are struggling even more now.
New Governor Phil Murphy has promised more aid for schools to defray costs, and has said he’ll do a better job with mergers than Christie. “We think you have to offer incentives and leadership to get that done,” he said during a gubernatorial debate. “We’ll appoint a shared services tzar. We’ll put real resources behind it and be aggressive.”
But New Jersey taxpayers are about to take another hit. Under the Republican tax plan -- signed into law by President Trump -- residents can only deduct $10,000 in state and local taxes. As a result, many residents will see their federal income taxes increase even more.
Legislators say they’re exploring a workaround.
Regardless, some residents say the tax burden has become too much to shoulder.
“It’s not sustainable for a family to stay here,” said a man named Michael over a beer at the Black Horse Tavern and Pub in Mendham Borough. He said he’ll be moving out of state as soon as his daughter graduates high school.