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VOORHEES, NJ-”Every problem in New Jersey is driven by property taxes,” said Assemblyman Lou D. Greenwald (D) at a Naiop New Jersey meeting held here yesterday. The event drew members of the development, smart growth and construction industries from all parts of the Garden State.

Along with the property tax issue, Greenwald pointed to the pension system as the other major cause of distress in the state. “The system is beyond fragile,” he noted. “It is probably even broken beyond repair.”

The $90-billion hole that the state sunk itself into, via the pension system, is not a partisan problem. “It is the result of years of failed policy,” said Greenwald. In other words, there has been almost no money put into the fund in nearly two decades. “Despite all of the negative remarks people have for former Gov. Jon Corzine, he put more money into the pension in three years than over the past 17 years combined,” he continued.

One of the biggest missteps was lowering the retirement age for pension funds from 62 to 55. “This had a crippling effect,” said Greenwald.

Of course the recent financial decline hasn’t helped matters. “We just cannot put enough money in,” Greenwald reflected. “We would need around $4 billion per year. It began as a case of ‘kicking the pebble down the road.’ Well, the pebble is now a boulder and the road is at a dead end.”

Most rational people would not blame government employees for the pension issue. “We made a contract with these people, but we do need to change the retirement age,” Greenwald noted. “And we need to have a serious conversation with government workers about the issue.” One thing he does not believe in is meddling with benefits for those who are already retired.

But back to the property tax debacle, Greenwald said, “In Bucks County, PA, for instance, you can own five acres of land and pay only $12,000 in taxes,” which is nearly the equivalent of owning one-third an acre in New Jersey. He also noted that his own property taxes will increase to $38,000 in 10 years–if no new measures are taken–for just over a half-acre of land. “I love this state,” added the lifelong resident, “but I just can’t justify that amount of money.”

With such a large chunk of change going to property taxes, there is little left in the state coffer for projects such as infrastructure improvement. In 2008, Corzine proposed a toll plan–essentially a proposal to raise tolls to pay off about $16 billion in state debt– which, according to Greenwald, was the right plan. “I probably would not have suggested increasing tolls by 800%,” he continued, “but he had the right idea.” Incoming Gov. Chris Christie, meanwhile, opposes raising tolls.

Along with toll increases, Greenwald discussed a formerly proposed gas tax. “Communities should have a local option on gas tax,” he related, which would essentially amount to an insignificant number–we’re talking a few cents per person.

Still, there is no easy answer to the infrastructure issue, noted Greenwald. “As it stands now, tolls are supposed to go into fixing the roads that are most in need, but a large portion of the money has not gone to this,” he said. “People have raided those funds in the past, so the big question is how do you control that?”

On a similar note, Greenwald is concerned about the $900-million surplus at the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, which has been set aside for solar energy. “My big fear is that someone will tap into that to help with this budget crisis.”

Another point of contention at yesterday’s meeting was the Department of Environmental Protection. One attendee stated, “There is no time sensitivity on its part, which is a huge problem for developers.”In response, Greenwald agreed that the DEP “is run by an ideology as opposed to legitimate ideas that become law. They really want no growth,” he continued, citing the Permit Extension Act, which the DEP fought against.

Greenwald went on to note that he, personally, fought for the redevelopment of Petty’s Island–a 292-acre island located in the Delaware River between Pennsylvania and New Jersey–five years ago, and wound up in a battle with the DEP. “It was then, and is now, an environmental disaster,” he related. “You would have thought it was the Garden of Eden, the way they fought over the land.” The unfortunate part is that due to the DEP’s lack of action, the site “is still a wasteland.”

However, Greenwald did say that former DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson was on the road to streamlining permits. “And I’ve heard good things about the new commissioner, Mark Mauriello. But it is the bureaucrats underneath him who are driving the policies.”

Greenwald believes that the DEP would do well to assign a direct liaison for different industries in New Jersey, from healthcare to casinos. However, he said, “you can’t take a hatchet to the DEP because the Licensed Site Professionals bill is a great step forward.”

Many attendees noted that state problems never seem to be resolved. The same issues have been batted around for the past 20-plus years, with few solutions put into effect. But Greenwald said the next few months “will offer a brief opportunity to reform the government.”

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