Genovese seeks property tax revolution through gubernatorial campaign
LONG HILL TWP. - Gina Genovese says New Jersey needs a property tax revolution, and she’s making a run for the Statehouse to ignite it.
The former Long Hill mayor is running for governor as an independent. She launched her candidacy last week.
A 23-year resident of Long Hill, Genovese served on the Township Committee from 2005 to 2007. In 2006, she became not only Long Hill’s first – and only – Democratic mayor, but also the first openly gay mayor in the state. She resigned from the committee in 2007 to focus on an unsuccessful run as the Democratic challenger against Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Morris/Union.
She lives on Hilltop Road with longtime spouse Wendy McCahill. A former tennis pro, she has owned and operated Gina’s Tennis World in Berkeley Heights for 34 years.
Genovese, 57, founded the non-profit organization Courage to Connect in NJ in 2009. The organization seeks to streamline government and lower taxes through the consolidation of municipalities, school districts and other local services. Genovese and her organization were involved in the 2012 merger of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough, and the 2014 formation of the South Hunterdon Regional High School District from four separate districts. She points to the mergers as the two greatest successes in New Jersey property tax reform.
Interviewed at her home last Thursday, Genovese prescribed a ‘top-down, bottom-up’ approach to lowering property taxes.
The Number One Question
As an elected in official in New Jersey, Genovese said, the No. 1 question she would hear was, “How are you going to reduce my property taxes?” She hears the same question every day as executive director of Courage to Connect NJ.
“I feel like no one in the state is addressing this issue,” she said. “And it’s not about shifting the cost of local government, it’s about reducing the amount that we spend.”
Genovese noted that Americans paid about $300 billion in property taxes last year, and New Jerseyans — who make up only 2.8 percent of the population — pay nearly 10 percent of that amount.
“That really was a statistic that hit me. I mean, how can anyone say that we can’t do it better?” Genovese demanded. “How can anyone say that we can’t reduce the property taxes, and also enhance the services? We could have an opportunity here to enhance the services, and we have two great models.”
She cited the success of the Princeton merger, saying the consolidated police department has saved $2.1 million, and is a more efficient force. The South Hunterdon regionalization, she said, has resulted in a school district which better serves its students.
As a mayor and township committeewoman, Genovese said she was able to see the inefficiencies of a small town. She praised the hard work of Long Hill employees, but said that those inefficiencies hampered the township to the point of cutting services. The issues stem, in part, from some 3,300 Long Hill households having to pay for an entire administration, she said.
“I tried to do things while I was mayor, but no one was really talking about sharing police or doing some big items that could potentially save taxpayers money. I saw that people really needed to be educated on this issue, that perhaps it wasn’t going to be mayoral-driven, that taxpayers themselves had to look at ways to reduce property taxes,” she said.
That experience was the impetus to found Courage to Connect.
Consolidation is one way to tackle property taxes, but not the only way, she said.
“It’s that we have to shift how we deliver services, and it has to be the services that comprise most of the budgets,” Genovese said. “We also have to shift that the counties blame the schools, the schools blame the towns, and the towns blame the schools. We have to shift that to where they’re all working for the taxpayer, and that’s a huge shift. That’s why a component of my campaign is the New Jersey property tax revolution, because without a top-down, bottom-up approach – which is a new approach by the way – New Jersey is not going to change.”
The top-down drive, Genovese said, has to come from the Statehouse. The bottom-up impetus has to come from New Jersey residents demanding change — those she has sought to educate through her organization.
“I see it, because I’ve been in the trenches with mayors, taxpayers, legislators, local officials, county officials. There are a lot of leaders out there, but they need direction from the Statehouse, and they also need support from the ground. My approach, the top-down, bottom-up approach, I believe is the only way New Jersey can move forward.”
Party Doesn’t Matter
Though she made waves as the first Democrat to serve as Long Hill Mayor, Genovese hasn’t been a registered Democrat for eight years.
“People were so invested in the label that I realized it was meaningless,” she said. “As I worked as executive director of Courage to Connect, I found that for the past eight years I worked 50 percent of the time with Republicans, and 50 percent of the time with Democrats. This is an issue that is important to everyone, and party really doesn’t matter. But if I was to run on a party line, then I would be told what to do, I would be managed, I would be told how to vote. I don’t think that’s what New Jersey needs right now.”
She said partisan politics is suffocating New Jersey, as well as the country as a whole. As an independent candidate, she said, the people will drive her campaign, not a political party.
An independent governor could be the icebreaker Trenton needs, said Genovese.
“I am strong enough as an independent candidate; I know how Trenton works. I have been involved for the past 12 years, and my involvement has been working with both Republicans and Democrats. So if there is someone who can do it, I believe I am that candidate.”
‘We Dropped The Ball’
In addition to property taxes, Genovese has her eye on such issues as economic development, pensions and affordable housing. The latter two concerns have been put off for years.
“Affordable housing is an issue that we have put off for over 12 years – since I’ve been a local official. So what that has caused is we have 37 percent working poor in New Jersey, and we’re paying a price for that,” she said. “Even though affordable housing can be an emotionally charged issue, it’s important to understand that back in 2006 when I was an elected official it was affordable housing for somebody making $42,000 a year in Long Hill Township. It’s about one out of three working poor in New Jersey now, and that will not change until we start addressing and building affordable housing in New Jersey.
“It’s kind of shameful that we dropped the ball on all of these issues. Just like the Transportation Trust Fund, it seems like New Jersey can only act when its back is against the wall and there’s no oxygen in the room, and they have to make a decision. And that’s just not leading.”
In addition, she said New Jersey needs to incentivize small business development. The past eight years have been spent providing economic incentives to large projects, corporations and companies, said Genovese, who said New Jersey needs to re-focus and provide incentives so that small businesses can grow and employ New Jerseyans.
A multi-faceted solution is needed to address the pension problem, she added, saying there is no one silver bullet. One aspect of the system Genovese said should change is basing final pension payments on the last years of one’s salary, which has led to the practice of public employees moving into high-paying jobs, then retiring after two years. Pensions should instead be tied to the aggregate salary over one’s career, she said.
Paying $10 billion annually to the state pension fund isn’t sustainable either, said Genovese.
“We haven’t given that much money to fund the pensions in an aggregate of 20 years, and here we are spending that every year. There’s also a lot of non-governmental employees that are getting pensions, and it needs to be tightened up. I don’t think one person can solve all of this, it needs to be everyone working together. I know that sounds like it can’t be done, but that is why key to my campaign is getting residents involved and understanding that they too are part of the solution.”
The candidate also suggested New Jersey hold a public referendum to legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older, so the state can regulate, tax and generate revenue from it. The voters of New Jersey should have an opportunity to have their say, she said. Recreational marijuana use is currently legal in eight states.
All of these issues are interrelated, Genovese said, and would contribute to her goal of saving 15 percent in taxes in four years.
“It’s important to put a goal out there that is achievable, that puts us in the right direction. A 2 percent cap does not put us in the right direction. If the goal is out there and we achieve it, we will actually be putting $4 billion back into our local economy, and that’s a good start.”
Hungry For Change
Genovese said she received a tremendous response in the hours following the launch of her campaign website, http://www.gina4njgovernor.com.
She took the response as a sign that people are hungry for a different approach.
“The amount of people that have gotten back to me in just the last 12 hours has been unbelievable,” she said. “I can’t imagine where this campaign is going to be in four to six weeks.”
Genovese, who is seeking to raise $500,000 to participate in the official gubernatorial debates, reiterated the need for a leader willing to address property taxes head-on.
“I know that if we don’t have a great leader in the Statehouse, or a governor that is willing to put their neck out for this issue, that nothing is going to change in New Jersey.”
Apr 25, 2017