February 20, 2019

Finance Committee Study Finds Mercer County is a Big Spender

By Anne Levin

At the February 11 meeting of Princeton Çouncil, a report by the Citizens Finance Advisory Committee (CFAC) revealed that Mercer County consistently spends more than other New Jersey peer counties, affecting the tax burden for Princeton residents.

Although he specified that the benchmarking study is “a very preliminary, rudimentary analysis,” CFAC head Scott Sillars recommended that the municipality engage with Mercer County officials and neighboring towns in the county to look further into the issue.

Princeton’s property tax allocation for 2018 was 48 percent for school tax, 30 percent for county tax, and 22 percent for municipal purposes. As compared to Camden, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Passaic, Somerset, and Union counties, considered peer counties, Mercer’s general purpose tax is 25 percent higher, according to CFAC’s study. “In every category we looked at, we found that Mercer spent more than the others,” Sillars said.

One of the problems is that Mercer data is not readily available. “The financial documents provided by Mercer County are lacking, to put it politely. They are incomplete,” he said. That means that CFAC is unable to do more than generalize the causes of the county’s spending.

Though the peer counties are not consistent in how their appropriations are categorized, “Mercer County spending (appropriations) are higher than the median for the peer counties in virtually every category where CFAC could reasonably compare the peers,” the report says.

When CFAC questioned county representatives about the lack of information, they were told it was not provided because no one had expressed interest in seeing it. “This does put the County officials, potentially, in a very awkward light,” Sillars said. “It seems as if this is a problem that has been around years and years and years.”

Reflecting on the study this week, Sillars said he hopes the municipality engages in a discussion with County officials. “It paints the County in a bad light because the numbers are so opaque,” he said. “So that’s the first step. Ask for more daylight and dialogue. See whether other Mercer municipalities are concerned about this.”

Ideally, Mercer County would engage an independent consultant to do some benchmarking studies with other counties. The goal, according to the report, is to make Mercer County taxes are better aligned with those of peer counties, resulting in lower tax bills to all Mercer County taxpayers.