At this point, it’s a far cry from Proposition 13, the landmark 1970s effort that resulted in constitutional limits on property-tax increases in California.
And it’s barely a whisper compared to the noise made by the toilet-paper flaunting brigades who turned out in Trenton after Gov. Jim Florio raised the New Jersey sales tax in 1990.
Still, there may be a tax rebellion developing in Red Bank. And it will face its first test of strength next week.
A group of South Street homeowners has been leafletting the borough in recent days in an effort to pack next Monday night’s Borough Council meeting with residents and business owners.
Their message: do something to stop tax increases.
Their aim is to draw a crowdideally, one as large as the unexpected throng that jammed the council chambers in July 2005, when the council’s Democratic majority hoped to resurrect dormant plans for a White Street parking garage that would be financed with public funds. That night, a standing-room crowd spilled out of the chambers into the first-floor hallway of the municipal buildingand the parking lot plan got shelved.
So far, the Southies have hit about one-third of the borough’s 3,400 or so residences, says organizer Marta Rambaud.
Whether the Rambaud-led effort will find its footing, let alone prove that it has legs, remains to be seen, of course. But Rambaud says that homeowners are at the breaking point, and something has to be done to keep property taxes from rising further.
“Every year, when the tax bill comes, I wait a few days to open it,” says Rambaud (pronounced rahm-BOWD). “I know I’m going to be upset.”
This year, the tab on her house, which is assessed at $300,000, came to about $10,000.
The tax burden on Red Bank homeowners is already higher than in nearby towns, and it’s rising more rapidly, Rambaud says, citing combined borough, school and county levies. The group’s fliers point up a 36-percent increase in property taxes since 2001, including a 6.36-percent jump in 2006.
Rambaud says the idea is not to pin blame on current or past administrations. She’s emphatic that the South Street group is not partisan, and has not yet reached out to the mayoral candidates, council members John Curley and Pasquale Menna.
Rather, she says, this is a cry for help, and to let the council know that the status quo is not OK.
“Our main concern is that at this rate, we will not be able to afford the property tax bill,” she wrote in an e-mail to redbankgreen. “This is not about criticizing what they are doing or not doing. We are just hurting, and the majority of residents cannot keep up with the burden that this property bill imposes.”
What to do about the problem is another matter. Rambaud is unashamed to admit that she doesn’t have answers to the question of what spending to freeze or cut from the budget in an effort to halt or reverse its growth. And she and her group fully expect to hear from elected officials that the real problem lies elsewherewith the schools, over which the council has limited influence, and with the state’s failure to deliver financial aid.
That’s not good enough, Rambaud says.
“We want a commitment from the borough council that this is the most serious problem here,” she says. “This is absurd.”
The property tax issue, which never seems far from the forefront, is getting renewed scrutiny. At the moment, special committees of the state Legislature are holding hearings on how to tackle the big issues that help make New Jersey residents the highest-taxed in the United States.
In the Red Bank mayoral race, Curley, the Republican, is calling for no more tax increases, and Menna, a Democrat, is touting his role in having “stabilized the tax rate” in his campaign literature. Still, taxes would appear to have taken a back seat to development as the election’s foremost issue.
Rambaud might seem an unlikely figure for the role she’s put herself in. Trained as physicist and electrical engineer, she says she knows next to nothing about taxation and finance. Childless, she’s carrying the torch for neighbors with young families. A native Spaniard, she’s in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, but in the meantime cannot vote here.
But she got the ball rolling when she posted a message about taxes on a Google Group message board that had largely been used by the women of South Street to organize their one-night-a-month outings. Spurred on by the strong reaction it generated, Rambaud took the lead in gathering comparative data from other towns. She’s also galvanized her neighbors, who have been trying to generate interest in the issue beyond South Street.
Rambaud, though, plans to let one or more of her neighbors do the public speaking Monday night.
“Marta is the linchpin,” says South Street neighbor Jeff MacPherson. “She’s driving the whole thing, and she’s certainly the inspiration for this.”
Whether the effort can be sustained is not an issue, says MacPherson.
“For people to get in the face of the borough in an election year is a good thing,” he says.