This is part of a series about local budgets and property tax. View the series landing page here.
To follow the public money and better understand what’s driving your property tax bills, you have to know when to engage the process. Understanding the “when” can take a taxpayer into a series of bureaucratic rabbit holes (I’ve heard this feedback from others and I’ve also experienced it myself), so I want to disclaim upfront: this post is not an exhaustive, academic dive into local budget timelines in NJ. Instead, it’s a quick primer for taxpayers who want to know: “how do I engage my local budget process to better understand what’s driving my property tax?”
I’ll share three distinct lenses on this:
- The property tax billing timelines
- The budget timelines
- Wonk nuance for those who want to dig further
So let’s talk about timelines.
1. The property tax billing timelines
I recommend / will defer to this excellent resource for property tax billing timelines: the New Jersey Homeowner’s Guide to Property Tax, created by the New Jersey Society of CPAs in partnership with New Jersey Realtors and the Association of Municipal Assessors of New Jersey. This is an excellent summation of the property taxation process with particularly helpful details around the property tax billing cycle (page 9, and picture shown below) and a calendar year view of the property taxation process (page 13).
The Guide referenced above makes note of the property taxation cycle on page 5 and “the Budget” is part of that. So let’s dig into the budget timelines next.
2. The budget timelines
Generally speaking, important context for local budget in NJ includes:
- In NJ, the state operates on a fiscal year basis, from July 1 through June 30. School districts follow this fiscal year basis in line with the state.
- Municipalities and counties can operate on a fiscal year (in sync with the state) or calendar year basis and so you need to check your local governments for details on this nuance.
I see four key elements to following the public money across local government such that you can better understand your property tax bills. They include:
- Understanding the role of the tax levies,
- understanding the budget timelines,
- following the press for updates, so that you can then
- engage the process itself as members of the public.
While the school budget process is standardized, the municipal and county processes can vary. So because I live in Jersey City and follow the Jersey City-specific budgets more closely, I created a brief 5-minute video below that goes over the schools and municipal budget timelines for Jersey City specifically. I note in the video that in Jersey City, for instance, the schools operate on a fiscal year basis from July 1 through June 30 and the municipality and county operate on a calendar year basis from January 1 through December 31. This dictates some of the timing nuance needed to follow the budget process in Jersey City.
And I mention in the video that following the public money can feel like “fighting City Hall,” an idiom that refers to the difficulty of engaging government bureaucracy. But it’s not as impossible as it seems and in fact you can gain many positive outcomes simply by engaging the process. You can meet others in community, learn about the challenges facing the local government (including our elected), and more.
You can watch the video for more details:
The level of detail that we can dig into is admittedly voluminous and can overwhelm an average taxpayer who may simply want a quick answer to when a local budget may be introduced or voted on. And to that I’ll share:
- Check your local government websites (all three of them – schools, municipality and county)
- Reach out to your local elected representatives within each of those local governments (these are the individuals you vote for)
- Reach out to the staff in your local government administration
- Attend a local public meeting and strike up a conversation with others in community who are already engaged in the process.
These are basic steps that members of community can take almost immediately to learn more.
3. Wonk nuance for those who want to dig further
New Jersey has 565 municipalities and even more school districts, so nuance around all of this abounds throughout the state. This is one reason why I find civic engagement so important; with highly localized governance, we need highly-localized engagement, too. Community members can dig into the nuance and research based on specific issues of personal importance. Some initial resources that I recommend to give a sense of the legal and regulatory framework include:
- New Jersey Statutes Annotated (“N.J.S.A”) Titles 40 and 40A refer to municipalities and counties including budget process. A link to the Statutes is here but you can also find documentation online, such as the “Local Budget Law” (N.J.S.A. 40A:4-1 et seq.)
- New Jersey Statutes Annotated (“N.J.S.A”) Title 18 refers to education including the budget process. The NJ Department of Education also has a “School Finance Home” page with information around the budget process and related data.
- Finally, I found this “Budget Process Overview,” by Jon Rheinhardt, the CFO of Bergen County, an interesting and informing read around the municipal budget process (click here or on the image to read the full article).
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