Is Berkeley Heights succession even possible?

LocalSource takes a glance at what a possible succession would mean for the county, and for Berkeley Heights

File Photo Berkeley Heights is determined to explore all their options in reducing taxes, and one such option is leaving Union County altogether, and joining neighboring Somerset or Morris.
File Photo
Berkeley Heights is determined to explore all their options in reducing taxes, and one such option is leaving Union County altogether, and joining neighboring Somerset or Morris.

BERKELEY HEIGHTS — There is no doubt people complain about county taxes rising, but few towns have been able to do anything about it. Until now.

The question 20 other towns in the county should be asking themselves is if Berkeley Heights somehow manages to withdraw from the county, how will that affect the county portion of their tax bill. Because the taxes previously paid by this municipality to the county every year will be made up by taxpayers in the remaining towns. That could impact every single property owner in the county.

The decision, reached by the governing body in September, was a major one for this tiny, sleepy community. But few opposed investigating the matter further. Withdrawing from the county, though, is serious business, and one that takes a united front and Berkeley Heights believes they are ready.

Berkeley Heights is a small community of 12,913 nestled in the Watchung Mountains. The quiet, tree lined streets are home to comfortable upscale homes. People who move to this town love the atmosphere but they are frustrated and tired of seeing their county tax bill continue to rise year after year. So tired that they are considering withdrawing from Union County and joining either Somerset or Morris.

The move toward annexing, though, has been a long time coming. Frustration has been mounting for years over “taxation without representation” on the Union County Freeholder Board, which also pushed this municipality towards the fast track to seceding.

Last September when Berkeley Heights Councilman Robert Woodruff proposed the municipality investigate withdrawing from the county, it was met with resounding support from fellow councilmembers and residents as well.

But making such a move is no easy feat. It requires a public referendum on the ballot in November and, if it gets that far, the blessing of the state legislature. Few in this small municipality would disagree that regardless of the road ahead, it makes sense fiscally.

Out of each tax dollar paid by property owners in Berkeley Heights, 60 cents goes to the schools, 18 cents to the town and 22 cents to the county, according to figures calculated by township officials.

For instance, the average homeowner with a house appraised at $307,000 in 2012 paid $3,100 in county taxes. In fact, last year Berkeley Heights taxpayers shelled out a whopping $14.5 million to the county alone.

According to township estimates, if Berkeley Heights withdrew to Somerset county, taxes at the county level would drop by $2 million.
If they went to Morris County the savings would be significantly more. For example, the average homeowner with a house assessed at $307,00 would only be paying $1,662 in taxes to the county, not $3,100 as they do to Union County.

Last fall, Woodruff told fellow governing body members it was imperative that they do something for residents.

“If anything is to be done for the people, we need to study this,” he said, pointing out that freeholders come from six of the 21 municipalities with 51 percent of the population, but they make decisions for every property owner in the county.

“Are those freeholders acting in the best interest of this town?” he asked.
Although the final answer is ultimately up to the New Jersey State Legislature, Woodruff felt it was worth a shot and the council agreed.
Since then this town has moved steadily on a course toward getting a non-binding referendum on the ballot.

By spring, Mayor Joseph Bruno decided if this was the direction the township wanted to go, then the public had to be involved. So he made sure this issue was on the agenda at every council meeting.

The reason for this was clear. Both mayor and council did not want any member of the community to feel they could not voice their opinion on this issue.

Another incentive, Bruno said, was that this year the average homeowner with property assessed at $303,684 would end up paying $201 more in county taxes, or 7.64 percent more than 2012.

Frustration has continued to mount for this mayor, specifically because the county is building a state of the art golf club at Galloping Hills Golf Course in Union, a new ice skating rink at the former Oak Ridge Golf course in Clark and handing out money left and right for costly studies for other projects and problems.

“They are saying ‘cut your disposable income by eight percent so I can spend more money,’” the mayor said at a March council meeting.
Woodruff’s report further explained why he believed withdrawing from the county is the only answer to the escalating county tax problem.

“Anyone who has sat during the budget process has seen us and how we have worked the budget to the bone, literally. I think we have done our share,” he said in his report to council in September, adding it was time to “look at the other side of the equation and the side of that equation is taxes.”

“What we are doing, and we are working very hard at it, is essentially treading water,” the councilman said.
Woodruff provided statistics for the two counties the township is considering withdrawing to: Somerset and Morris.

Using the same assessed value of $307,000 for the average homeowner, Somerset County could offer 30 percent less in county taxes, while Morris County could offer 46 percent less.

“If I take and expand that out, it’s this simple: if we were in Morris County the last three years, we would have paid $4.5 million less in 2009, $5.2 million less in 2010,” he said, adding that the number would have been $6.8 million less in 2012.

If the township was in Somerset, these numbers would be $2 million less in 2009, $3.5 million less in 2010, $4.4 million less in 2012, according to the councilman.

While Woodruff was not suggesting that county government be abolished, he did believe Berkeley Heights had to act boldly and quickly.
“It would be in the best interest of the town, at this time,” he said, adding that “this is something that has been coming for a long time.”

“I think we need to make a statement to the county as a township, as a council,” the councilman said, noting the township should not think about how the legislature might vote on such an issue.

“This has to stop and I don’t know any other way to do it,” Woodruff added.
Union County Public Information Director Sebastian D’Elia scoffed at the idea of Berkeley Heights putting a referendum on the November ballot.

“It’s just another political ploy,” he told LocalSource two weeks ago, adding that there is no chance withdrawing from the county would work.
Complicating the picture, D’Elia said, is the fact the Berkeley Heights is the home of many county-owned facilities, including Runnells Specialized Hospital and Watchung Reservation. Should the township be successful in withdrawing to another county, they would have to reimburse the county for these facilities. That, he said, could run millions.

Regardless, Bruno is determined to put the referendum on the ballot and is aware of the law surrounding this move. A resolution must be passed by the governing body by the first meeting in August.

Next week: Secession has been tried in New Jersey, but it is a long, hard road with few successes.