Hopewell Valley officials, residents call for property tax reform

Gathering at Hopewell Valley Bistro was part of series of roundtables being held around the state.

By John Tredrea
   About 20 Hopewell Valley officials and residents at a state-sponsored "property tax roundtable" unanimously supported a reduction in the use of property taxes to fund public schools.
   Assistant DCA Commissioner Kimberly Ricketts — who pinch-hit for DCA Commissioner Susan Bass Levin who was not able to attend — was the moderator of the program held Friday at the Hopewell Valley Bistro in Hopewell Borough.
   The gathering at the Bistro was part of a series of roundtables held around the state by Gov. James E. McGreevey and other top state officials.
   "These discussions with the pubic will help to develop meaningful solutions that ensure homeowners’ hard-earned dollars are going to the classroom, not bureaucratic red tape," said DCA spokeswoman Jennifer Monaghan.
   At the Bistro, first to respond to Ms. Ricketts’ call for suggestions and comments was Hopewell Borough Mayor David Nettles, who said, "It would be very helpful if the governor vetoed, or did not sign, any school legislation, however well-intended it may be, that doesn’t come with state funding."
   Along with others at the roundtable, Mayor Nettles also backed levying impact fees on developers whose projects add students to a school district. Those fees currently are disallowed by state law.
   Hopewell Borough resident Louis Young agreed with the mayor, adding: "More school district spending should be discretionary" than is now the case and that state government should pass legislation to that effect.
   Resident Judy Hill, active in PTO affairs in the Hopewell Valley district, said she was concerned that "91 percent of school funding comes from property taxes. I’d like to see a shift" that would use income tax revenues for educational funding. This means renters would share the burden, she said.
   "I agree," Pennington Mayor Jim Loper said. "Be it income taxes or other sources, we need a better balance than we have now. Another source besides property taxes is needed."
   Mayor Loper said he believes the current system "is forcing seniors out of Pennington" because they can’t afford to pay property taxes. "The homes seniors vacate often become occupied by families with school-age children. So it’s a vicious cycle."
   "I agree with the mayor of Pennington," declared Hopewell Borough resident and former Hopewell Valley Regional Board of Education member Warren C. Lewis.
   Hopewell Township Mayor Vanessa Sandom and Hopewell Borough resident Bill Baeckler — also a former school board member — supported a constitutional convention on property tax reform.
   "The property tax issue is in the hands of state legislators and they are beholden to special interest groups and so are totally strapped," Mr. Baeckler declared bluntly. He said a blend of property, income and sales tax revenues to fund education would be an improvement over what we have now.
   Blanche Segal, a Hopewell Township retiree, said: "I’m all for a constitutional convention. I know a lot of seniors who have had to move out because of property taxes."
   Her husband, Al Segal, agreed, adding that, although he backs tax reform: "We don’t want to detract from our excellent school system and its high standards. Those children deserve the very best we can give them."
   Hopewell Township resident Sheila Beyer said school districts should strive to "work smarter, not harder. The trick is to find ways to need less."
   Her husband, Robert Beyer, agreed on the need to focus on needing less.
   "We all want the best society we can create," he said. "Sometimes to have a simple society is better." He said educators should focus more on the classroom and the teacher-pupil dynamic and less on "peripheral activities."
   Hopewell Valley schools Superintendent Nick Lorenzetti backed a Cconstitutional Cconvention. He added: "There are many laws that restrict how we do or not do things that have become so oppressive, cumbersome and expensive to follow."
   Mr. Lorenzetti called for a weeklong convocation of state legislators, school administrators and school board members, for in-depth talks on school funding and regulations.