It’s time to recognize the role that municipal lawsuits play in the crushing burden of New Jersey’s property tax

By Marcus Rayner, May 26, 2011 

In New Jersey, the arrival of spring doesn’t just mean warmer weather and the smell of fresh flowers, it’s also the time of year when our state’s 566 municipalities draw up their budgets. And most of us, busy with daily life, fail to take note of our town council’s agenda — until we see the increase on our next property tax bill.

Everyone acknowledges that property taxes in New Jersey are crushing. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, (D-Essex) and Gov. Chris Christie have been vocal about the need to address the property tax crisis New Jersey has been battling for a generation. There are many reasons for the high tab we pay for local government services. And disagreements about public school funding, contracts, pensions, benefits and shared services are all but assured as each party makes its case.

Yet there is at least one cost-driver that’s relatively uncontroversial but has been nearly absent from the debate: we need to get a handle on lawsuits against our local governments.

Unfortunately, lawsuits are part of municipal budgets’ new normal in New Jersey. The Municipal Excess Liability Joint Fund, which is the largest insurer of local governments in New Jersey, reports that our towns’ and cities’ litigation costs have increased 104 percent over the past ten years. Most of this increase occurred in just the past five. That’s largely because trial lawyers — like the ones you see on TV instructing you to call their 1-800 number if you’ve been hurt by “anything” — have learned that local governments are an easy target.

Read full op-ed in NJ Spotlight.