BERKELEY – The Berkeley Township governing body is urging the state to fulfill its part of two programs designed to save money for local taxpayers.
The first is the Senior Freeze program. This locks senior property owners in at a fixed amount. For example, let’s say the senior has to pay $1,000 in taxes. The program locks in the taxes at that rate. Then, when their taxes go up to $1,050, the senior pays $1,050 and then the state reimburses the senior that $50.
The Homestead Rebate Benefit program also provides property tax relief to eligible homeowners. For most homeowners, the benefit is distributed to their municipality in the form of a credit, which reduces their property taxes.
However, the state’s proposed supplemental budget has a significant reduction in both of these programs.
The Berkeley Township Council passed resolutions imploring state legislators to fund both of these programs and make the necessary revisions to save the people who will be hurt by these moves. The resolutions were sent to the governor and the legislators of the 3rd, 9th, and 10th districts.
“This measure is an unnecessary slap in the face to our senior citizens, who rely on such programs to afford living in this state,” the resolution said about the Senior Freeze proposal.
The reason that the state gave for cutting these two programs was that they lost money due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The township’s resolutions said that it is precisely because of the pandemic that the state shouldn’t cut funding to residents. Residents are suffering economic hardships due to the virus as well and township officials said Trenton shouldn’t balance its budget on the backs of residents who are already hurting.
According to the resolution, Berkeley has 8,700 residents who qualify for Homestead – the most of any municipality in the state. Across the county, 60,906 qualified for the program, which provided them an average of $221.
Their resolution urges the state to fully fund and reinstate the Homestead Benefit program and find other ways to balance the budget. Since the second quarter tax bills are passed, they want the Homestead applied to the third or fourth quarters.
The Ocean County Freeholders also urged the governor to fully fund these programs.
With more than 173,000 seniors in Ocean County, the loss of this money could be disastrous, said Freeholder Director Joseph Vicari.
“When your monthly income is no more than $1,400 from Social Security, taking away these programs will only increase the severe financial hardship already experienced by this vulnerable population,” Vicari said.
He added, “both of these programs are critical to the ongoing self-sufficiency and financial security of older adults in Ocean County. It’s imperative that we all advocate for our seniors so they can hold on to the programs that provide them some property tax relief.”
Ocean County seniors living alone on an income equivalent to the federal poverty guideline can cover only 36 to 51 percent of their basic living expenses.
The 9th District legislators – Senator Christopher Connnors, Assemblyman Brian Rumpf and Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove (R-9th) – started an online petition urging the governor not to cut these two programs. It can be found here: senatenj.com/petitions/propertytaxrelief/.
“Eliminating or cutting the Senior Freeze or the Homestead Benefit programs would have a devastating financial impact on taxpayers, especially seniors, who rely on those programs to stay in their homes and pay their bills. As such, vital property tax relief programs must be prioritized and fully funded in the state budget. The question shouldn’t be if these programs are funded, but how,” the legislators said in a joint press release.
The Homestead Benefit credit had already been eliminated from property tax bills that were due on May 1, forcing homeowners to pay more, they said. Now the tax credit might be removed from bills due in August, November, and 2021.
“For taxpayers who stand to take a sizable financial hit if the Senior Freeze or Homestead programs were cut or eliminated, our online petition will serve as a rallying point and broad forum to fight yet another state policy that would work against taxpayers. A very direct and forceful message needs to be sent directly to Governor Murphy and the legislative leadership controlling the state budget process that taxpayers want and desperately need relief, not more policies that they will be on the losing side of, as is the case with the state’s school funding formula,” they said.
The 9th District, which includes towns like Berkeley, have a large senior population who would be impacted more than other areas in the state, they added.
-Bob Vosseller contributed to this story