Less aid rocking small towns

BY Christopher Lang, Northern Valley Suburbanite, Published April 30, 2008

Life in the Northern Valley region, one of the wealthiest areas in the state, is not getting any cheaper. Small municipalities are reeling in the wake of drastic cuts that state Gov. Jon Corzine has proposed to help keep the budget at $33 billion for 2008-09.

With the budget season in full swing, several municipalities have proposed large tax increases, instead of cutting spending, to offset the loss in financial aid.

In Northvale, a small community that has proposed the Northern Valley’s largest tax increase at 21 percent, had $344,000 cut in its state aid gift.

“Out of the 21 percent tax increase, roughly 8 percent of that is because of the state aid loss,” Northvale Mayor John Hogan said. “It is a significant part of the increase of the budget.”

Harrington Park, which lost $149,826 in state aid, proposed a 10.6 percent tax increase.

And Closter, which is larger than both municipalities but has less than 10,000 residents, is looking at a 14 percent tax increase.

“We cut about every single area that is ours to work with but the portion that is flexible is so small compared to the portion we can’t do anything about,” Closter Mayor Sophie Heymann said. But the state’s financial impact is still driving up the tax levy.

Several Northern Valley municipalities, including Cresskill, which has a tax increase of 7.9 percent, were under 10 percent.

All officials agree that the main culprit is the state, which is trying to hold down its costs this budget cycle.

“The thing that really upsets me is why do small towns have to get hit with the extra burden? I know it’s all because the state is trying to coerce small towns to merge,” Harrington Park Councilman Lynn Lander said.

But there may be some hope if state Legislatures can find funding within the state budget to restore some aid to these communities.

Corzine said he is aware of some Legislatures’ efforts on both aisles of the Statehouse to restore funding to small municipalities but said, “We are going to stay at $33 billion.”

The governor has no problem with restoring aid to small municipalities if legislators can keep the proposed budget at $33 billion.

“The reality is the money isn’t there,” Corzine said last week. “And we can’t restore something we don’t have. If we cut funds that is fine. But it has to come from somewhere else.”

The plan legislators are looking at would only impact municipalities with less than 10,000 residents.

“There are plenty of ways to find the money for those municipalities,” Assemblyman John Rooney, who lives in Northvale, said. “You are talking about taking aid away from all of the towns below 5,000,” he said. “There is a real problem with that.”

Legislators have discussed ways to restore funding in committee meetings, but nothing official has been proposed as of yet.

“He has to restore that money. There is no question about it,” Rooney said. “I think they are going to have too.”

Corzine did, however, defend his plan for cutting aid to municipalities. He said priority wise, the dollars have been shifted to other areas that he feels are more important. While state aid to municipalities was cut in many cases, most of the state’s school districts, even in the Northern Valley region, were given financial increases.

“We have to make judgements about what our priorities are,” he said, adding that education is at the top of that list.

E-mail lang@northjersey.com or call 201-894-6710. Staff writers Sophia Gonzalez and Catherine Wilde contributed to this report.