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Fosdick: Transcendent value of community

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


The moment a volunteer is replaced with paid personnel, there is a dramatic tax consequence.

DISCUSSION about municipal consolidation, regionalization and shared services does not address the issue in terms that relate to actual property tax bills.

What must be done is to determine the impact any proposed savings might have on a taxpayer's bill.

In Ridgefield Park, for example, 69.4 percent of the 2007 municipal budget was funded by property taxpayers. State aid, fees and other income sources funded the balance. The municipal budget represents about a third of the average $8,014 property tax bill. The school budget (submitted to the voters for approval) accounts for 60 percent, with the county tax obligation accounting for the remainder.

We have determined that an expenditure, or reduction, of $100,000 in the municipal budget represents $22.22 of the average annual property tax bill. Using that $100,000 number, we can then evaluate the expenditure or saving and determine the course of action to be taken.

Although taxpayers want to save every penny, the vast majority who talk to me want to save more than $22.22 on their annual bill -- $5.05 for each quarterly payment, or $1.86 on the monthly mortgage installment. Under current conditions, the difficulty in achieving significant savings becomes apparent.

To reduce the tax bill by 10 percent annually would require a budget reduction of $3.6 million. Regionalization, consolidation and shared services would not save that amount.

In addition, recently published figures show that, invariably, per-pupil costs at regional schools are consistently higher than those of almost all local school districts.

Insignificant savings

Furthermore, although citizens are very vocal about taxes, they are equally adamant about maintaining the service level they now expect local government to provide.

Still further, as a volunteer firefighter for the past 44 years, I am irritated by those who raise "the number of firetrucks" in Bergen County, comparing the figure to the number of apparatus used in New York City, omitting as they always do the fact that the New York department is paid, while almost all Bergen County firefighters are volunteer.

Here are some numbers from Ridgefield Park to consider when discussing this aspect of the property tax situation:

* In Ridgefield Park, we have a full-time professional Police Department. It responded to more than 18,000 calls in 2007. Total remuneration for the department last year was $5,187,786, which translated into approximately $800 for the average property taxpayer.

* The total Fire Department budget for our six-company volunteer department was $216,000, or $33 on the average property tax bill.

* The volunteer ambulance corps' tax impact was $7 per bill; the Rescue Squad's was $2.

* Several years ago, the voters approved a Length of Service Awards Program pension plan for our volunteers, and that tax impact was $23.

Considering such figures, it becomes apparent that purchasing apparatus and equipment for our volunteer emergency services is a wise and cost-saving expenditure. No matter what scenario you create, the moment a volunteer is replaced with paid personnel, there is a dramatic tax consequence.

Matter of community

Finally, there is this not insignificant matter of "community" that some are prepared to dismiss as a quaint anachronism. I don't think so.

In Ridgefield Park, we pride ourselves on our history. Our first settlers arrived in 1685, and direct descendents still live here.

We value our Independence Day celebration, held each year since 1894. We take pride in our fine school system, begun in 1880, and the accomplishments in academics and high school athletics, begun in 1904.

Fraternal, civic, veterans, school, youth, religious and service organizations all taking an active part in the community.

All of these things contribute to the body politic and give a life and vibrancy often not found in other places. There is a transcendent value in this thing we call "community" -- in our case, the village of Ridgefield Park.

The property tax problem was not created by local governments and school boards. We need to acknowledge that our reliance on a tax system dating to Colonial times does not work. This decrepit and unfair tax system is made worse by burdens imposed by state and federal governments, which, unable to put their own houses in order, place burdens at the local level that are difficult to support.

George D. Fosdick is mayor of Ridgefield Park, a Bergen County municipality of about 12,700 people.

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