April 18 (Bloomberg) -- New Jersey voters approved 90 percent of school budgets in districts that held elections yesterday as just three systems sought approval to exceed Governor Chris Christie’s 2 percent cap on local levy increases.
Voters passed 63 of the 70 budgets before them, according to results compiled by the New Jersey School Boards Association.
Most districts took advantage of a new state law that let them shift their elections to November to cut costs. Last year, voters approved 80 percent of the 538 school budgets on the April ballot.
“In this current economy, people think that allowing for 2 percent growth is fair, and that allowing for more than that is unfair and you have to prove the fairness of it,” Christie told reporters today in Ewing. “When you go beyond 2 percent people are going to start questioning it.”
Christie, 49, a first-term Republican, cut aid to districts in his first 18 months in office. He proposed a $213 million increase in funding in his budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
New Jersey’s property taxes, the main source of funding for schools and towns, have climbed 70 percent in the past decade and are the highest in the nation. Christie enacted a 2 percent cap on the levies that took effect at the start of 2011.
The school districts that didn’t move their elections to November had to place their budgets on the ballot. Those holding November elections must present their spending plans to voters only if they exceed the limit. Towns also need approval of their budgets only if they are seeking cap waivers.
In 2011, 14 of 566 towns asked voters to exceed the cap, and two passed. This year, Medford in Burlington County and Lawrence in Mercer County held referendums. Medford was approved, Mayor Randy Pace said in a telephone interview, while Lawrence was rejected by a vote of 66 percent to 34 percent, according to results on the county’s website.
“Good for them -- higher property taxes for Medford,” Christie said. “If the people of Medford want to pay higher property taxes, that’s fine. It’s their call.”
In 2010, voters overturned a record 59 percent of school-spending plans after Christie urged them to do so in communities where teachers declined to accept wage freezes to deal with aid reductions. It was the first time New Jersey voters rejected a majority of school budgets since 1976.
Among the 70 school districts that held elections yesterday, three put an additional measure on the ballot seeking to exceed Christie’s cap. Voters approved the so-called second questions in Haddon Heights and Hawthorne and rejected Greenwich Township’s proposal.
The seven districts that failed to win approval for their base budgets were the Delsea Regional, Franklin and Monroe systems in Gloucester County; Readington in Hunterdon County, Lawrence Township in Mercer County, Lakewood in Ocean County, and the North Bergen district in Hudson County, according to the school-board association.
“The boards balanced the priorities of voters,” Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the Trenton-based group, said in a telephone interview. “They provided adequate funding for education, but they also recognized what these communities could afford.”
The April school election is one of five dates during the year when districts may also seek approval for construction projects. Only one such referendum was held yesterday. Voters in East Rutherford approved selling as much as $2.5 million in bonds for school renovations.
The Lawrence referendum would have allowed the town to exceed the cap by $2.3 million, increasing municipal tax bills by an average of $145 a year, according to budget documents on the municipality’s website. Richard Krawczun, the township manager, said the council will consider charging a $28 monthly fee for trash collection.
In Medford, a suburb of Philadelphia, a proposal to raise the levy 25 percent above the cap was supported by about 57 percent of voters, a year after a waiver request was rejected by 84 percent. Without this year’s increase, which will raise tax bills by an average of $325 a year, Medford was considering possibly ending municipal trash pickup and cutting non-mandated programs, Pace said.
“It was pretty tough to go to referendum: I live here and I don’t want to raise my own taxes,” Pace said. “Unfortunately, we had to do this.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Terrence Dopp in Trenton at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at firstname.lastname@example.org