In the Herald newsroom, we annually report on municipal and county government budgets, the ones that ordinary readers will fund with their taxes.
Usually the resounding noise from the public at those mandated hearings is a deafening silence. Once in a great while someone will question a line item. However, in my time covering such meetings, I can't recall a budget ever being changed as a result of a taxpayer's inquiry.
Budgets put people to sleep. They are difficult to comprehend, even in "reader friendly" versions.
I have a sneaking suspicion that many officials don't understand them either, which is why they lean heavily on their auditor to explain the details, should a question arise from the tax-paying public.
Couple that with the fact that many in the public are math-challenged, and it's easy to understand why "Mum’s the word" at most budget hearings.
Take, as an example, the March 26 hearing at 4:30 for the $161-million Cape May County budget for 2019. For the working person, catching such meetings is virtually impossible. However, for any stalwart public advocate, the first one of each month, held the second Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the County Administration Building, 4 Moore Road, is likely the easier of the two public meetings to attend.
It's quite a sacrifice for the ordinary citizen to attend the meetings, given that such attendance means missing "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune," both of which are likely more challenging than hearing resolutions read for road contracts and bids for air conditioning units.
This, however, is how government works, and how it funds itself by reaching into your wallet.
Perhaps other states are different when it comes to imposing tax burdens on their citizens. New Jersey, which I consider a tropical jungle for understanding the property tax bill, has to be one of the most difficult to comprehend.
Every entity has its own budget: municipal, school, county, fire district (in townships only), Open Space, library.
Everyone does a ballet dance when it comes to offering excuses for rising taxes. They may cloak themselves in righteousness and say, "We've only increased our rate by a penny." Who could beef about a penny? That's where the math-challenged are sucker-punched. That penny, which admittedly isn't much, is like a bag of potato chips in the shopping cart. It's not much, until the whole bill is tallied.
The electorate is allegedly spared from outrageous municipal budget hikes by a 2% cap. HOWEVER, there are qualified exclusions that allow the budget limit to be exceeded.
Officials point to union contracts as reasons salaries have forced budgets to increase. Healthcare costs are another reason to dig deeper into your wallet. They cite state “mandate without pay,” which is a clever way the Trenton elite wave their wand over the Garden State and magically cause tax bills to increase.
Will budget increases ever stop? Only when government gets smaller, this is to say never.
Imagine if the taxpaying public were astute and monitored the local and county budget, knew where the fat was tucked away, and where the waste took place. If budgets were written so the average taxpayer could understand them, without having to puzzle in wonderment, perhaps we would see change.
Imagine if taxpayers rose up in arms and demanded lower taxes. How would elected officials respond? Ever mindful of the ballot box, I would venture that there would be a scramble for red pencils, and we'd begin to see budgets that reacted to the public's desire for lower taxes all around.
Coupled with the mandates, there seems to be an idea that government needs to take an ever-greater role in our lives, cradle to grave some call it. With such a mindset, taxes will never drop.
As our U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew has stated many times, before he went to Washington, "New Jersey doesn't have a revenue problem. It has a spending problem."