The needler in the haystack.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Plainfield property tax bills raise ire

About that tax bill you just got.

Or may get in the next day or two.

I have been deluged with angry emails about the 'tax increase' in the Quarters 3/4 property tax bills homeowners have received in recent days.

Though the bills have put some taxpayers in shock, the truth is they do NOT represent a tax increase. They are the result of the lag between the tax collection process and the local government budget process.

Property tax rates are composed of four parts: the local municipal budget, the school tax, taxes suppporting County government, and a small Open Space set-aside tax.

Problems arise because municipal budgets -- set by their governing bodies -- cannot be adopted immediately upon the start of a new fiscal year.

For one reason, Councils want to investigate the Administration's budget proposal carefully before adoption, and a series of public hearings are held ranging over the entire local government operation, often taking two to three months.

Secondly, no budget can be adopted until a community's accountants have done an audit and 'closed the books' on the fiscal year just past. This usually cannot be completed until two or three months into the new fiscal year.

Thirdly, communities -- like Plainfield -- which rely on substantial annual grants-in-aid from the State for operating expenses, don't usually learn of their apportionment until the second week of November or so.

In the meantime, however, the municipality needs to be collecting taxes to keep government running -- even though a final tax rate has not been set.

How do they do that?

An ESTIMATE is made, and taxes for the first two quarters of the fiscal year (in Plainfield's case from July 1 through December 31) are billed on this estimate.

If the estimate is LOW -- as happened this year -- the difference must be made up in the last two quarters.

And that is the explanation of why your most recent tax bill differs so sharply from the previous one.

If there is a complaint, perhaps it should be lodged against Mayor Robinson-Briggs, whose financial house was in considerable disarray last year: the Tax Collector was fired early on, and the Director of Finance and Administration's responsibilities were handled by City Administrator Carlton McGee who then left at a crucial moment.

So, if there is one thing a taxpayer probably wants to do, it is to insist on your Council representatives' pressing the Administration to make sure that THIS YEAR'S first two quarters are better estimated, thus eliminating (or at least reducing) the shock in the last two quarters.

A related question on people's minds is why the bills take so long in coming?

Many are annoyed that they cannot just pay their taxes as soon as the fiscal year starts, because the Tax Collector's office says they are 'not ready.'

It is not entirely the staff's fault -- taxes are not collected until the TAX RATE IS SET, and that is done at the County level and not at the local level.

Once that is done, the bills can be printed off and mailed.

The difficult part in Plainfield often becomes the MAILING of the bills. Administrations and Tax Collectors have been of different minds on whether it is cost-efficient to have the local staff fold and stuff each individual envelope and lug them down to the mail room in batches OR to have an outside service do it professionally -- which, of course, involves a fee.

In my humble opinion, using an outside service to mail the bills just makes sense. But reasonable people can disagree.

Lastly, one would think that if Mayor Robinson-Briggs understood how upsetting these tax bills are to so many homeowners/voters, her deep-bench communications team would be assigned to -- at the least -- prepare a 'bill stuffer' to explain what's going on.

Wouldn't one?

-- Dan Damon

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Anonymous said...

Indeed a 'bill stuffer' would be a "good thing" for the Mayor to do. Westfield sends me one for property I have there. And each year I say how nice the Mayor is there to write me this sweet note explaining why it's not his fault that my taxes went up. grrrrrrr
J. Spear

Anonymous said...

This statement really makes no sense to me:

Though the bills have put some taxpayers in shock, the truth is they do NOT represent a tax increase. They are the result of the lag between the tax collection process and the local government budget process.

I look at the year as a whole, not the first half compared to the second half. If the outcome of the year in 2007 is more than I paid in 2006, I would consider that a tax increase.

And as for the bill stuffer, couldn't they hire a temp for $10 an hour to do it, There is a day labor place in plainfield. This would be cheaper and faster than contracting out the business.

William said...

First of all I have always held the position that taxes in Plainfield are too low. We bought our home in 2000 at that time the taxes were $6400. Currently they are just shy of $11,000. Things cost I understand that. Where I have a big problem is the waste and frivolity. This year I understand ALL department heads recieved new automobiles. DO we really have this kind of money in out coffers while my street Highland Avenue is about as smooth as KIrsty Allies celulite on her derrier. See you at the next city council meeting.

Anonymous said...

If you want to talk about raising taxes lets talk about the PMUA. Raising rates again! How is it that my sewer bill is twice what my water bill is? Let’s not even talk about the shared service charge that also went up, billing businesses and doing absolutely nothing for it. They will tell you that it is for collection garbage from the city streets, schools and municipal properties but wasn’t that done by the city prior to the PMUA? Funny I didn’t see my taxes go down when the PMUA took over. Another excuse that won’t hold water is the raising of the price for the landfill. The PMUA had a contract for a set amount of garbage for the Plainfield households. They did NOT pickup commercial properties. Waste Management did most of the commercial pickups and if correct they also own the landfill. PMUA states it can compete and has put out flyers stating such but on the backs of whom. They will tell you that the home owners are generating more garbage than the contract stated but is the commercial waste accounted for separately? Once again the homeowners are burdened for the PMUA trying to compete at the expense of the taxpayer.
Its time that Plainfield taxpayers started standing up and voicing their objections instead of sitting there and taking it. One way is voting for the person not the line.