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A Town's Taxing Tax Troubles

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If my town was a patient on a psychiatrist's couch, it might be diagnosed with a split personality. That's because Montclair, N.J., has cut some spending during this awful economic downturn while continuing to spend money on optional things.

For instance, Montclair's leaders nixed the idea of a community center but pushed for a $750,000 "beautification" of a downtown street, closed a library branch just weeks after spending $160,000 or so for a main branch re-carpeting that could have waited several years, and laid off lower-paid employees while continuing to fund six-figure salaries for too many officials.

Some of the above involves capital rather than operational spending, but even capital spending costs money each year because debt has to be paid down. Meanwhile, Montclair's leaders are buffeted by the wishes of affluent residents who favor upscale projects and the opposite wishes of less-affluent residents who can't afford property-tax hikes because they're unemployed, underemployed, wage-frozen, wage-cut, or retired. Non-rich tenants are also in the soup because higher taxes on building owners usually lead to higher rents.

In 2010, Montclair's municipal taxes rose a whopping 9.2% -- with overall taxes (including school and county levies) increasing 5.5%. How many people do you know who received a 5.5% or 9.2% raise last year?

And those crushing tax hikes came after many other years of large levy leaps, making the 2010 whammy cumulatively worse. My property taxes have more than doubled since I bought my modest Montclair house in 1993, while my income is now lower than 18 years ago due to today's pathetic economy.

Ever-rising taxes have a real impact on people's lives. For instance, The Montclair Times reported last month that the African-American population in our 37,669-population town dropped from 12,497 in 2000 to 10,230 in 2010. That was an 18.1% decline during a decade when Montclair's total population decreased a much smaller 3.4%. For a town that likes to call itself liberal, this is appalling news.

So what can be done to prevent tax hikes that push out lower- and middle-income residents? In an ideal world, there would indirectly be more funds for Montclair and other municipalities if the rich gave up their not-needed tax cuts, economy-wrecking financial moguls returned their undeserved bonuses, and the U.S. ended its pointless presence in Afghanistan. But that's as likely as Sarah Palin endorsing President Obama for reelection.

The solution, at least until the economy improves, is for towns to "cut, cut, cut, cut" rather than "cut, spend, cut, spend." Just fund what's necessary, please, and try not to hurt the non-affluent.

Montclair is belatedly starting to absorb that austerity message, because it looks like local taxes will not increase as much in 2011 as they did in 2010 (mostly thanks to a Board of Education that has worked much harder than the Township Council to reduce costs). But my burg needs to absorb that austerity message even more by eschewing things like street beautification and fancy library carpeting. If it does, Montclair could rise from that metaphorical psychiatrist's couch -- and metaphorically save money on therapy fees.

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