To the Editor:
In a NY Post article dated April 21, 2015, “The steady death of a blue New Jersey town,” Bethany Mandel writes about what she describes as the decline of Highland Park, NJ due to “feel good,” liberal legislation. Just so we’re clear, the “Blue” in the title means Liberal, in case you were thinking that Highland Park was about to experience mass depression or an onslaught of Jazz musicians.
One of the reasons Ms. Mandel, who hails from Highland Park, gives for this decline is that Highland Park was the first town in New Jersey to ban fracking. Since our small town along the Raritan is far away from fracking country, she reasons, this law is just another feel-good, frivolous piece of liberal back-patting designed to make us feel better about ourselves without enacting any meaningful change. Ms. Mandel cites the increase in the borough’s smoking age to 21 as “meaningless” legislation that will send business to Edison. She then discusses our property tax increase of 4.6 percent this past year, despite a state cap on property taxes at 2 percent, as a sure sign of Democratic finagling –all signaling the end of Highland Park as we know it.
So let’s break this down. First, property taxes. Ms. Mandel says that increased property taxes are driving homeowners and renters away. Admittedly, HP had one of the highest property tax increases in Middlesex County. However, that hasn’t affected home sales. According to city-data.com, home sales in the borough peaked in 2012, when home prices were lowest following the housing bubble burst. Since then, housing sales have returned to stable, pre-2012 levels. In fact, population and number of housing units have remained about the same since 1970.
Ms. Mandel also mentions the empty storefronts along Raritan Avenue. I love a good road trip and have traveled the length and breadth of this country. I can tell you that Raritan Ave looks a lot more vibrant that Fredericksburg, VA or Laramie, WY. Certainly, if compared to similarly sized NJ towns, it is hopping with eateries, convenience stores and what I can only imagine is about one nail salon per dozen people or so. In NJ Family Magazine’s “Best Cities for Families” rating, it comes in 171 out of 512 cities. Not great, but a far cry from Elk, NJ. I have to say I’ve never been to Elk, but I don’t think you’re going to find Salsa lessons, computer repair, bagels, a toy store and cuisines from around the world, all within walking distance.
But Ms. Mandel doesn’t compare us to Elk, NJ or any other small town, she compares us to Edison: a town of almost 100,000 people and a vastly larger tax base. A town that is intersected by three main thoroughfares: Route 1, Route 287 and the Turnpike. She wants to know why Highland Park can’t be as business friendly as Edison? We have no big box stores because, she says, “they’ll be picketed and protested.” When I first read that, I thought, “where are you going to put it? In Donaldson Park? Other than Route 27, we have no road large enough to support the traffic of such a venture, let alone the space. Instead, let’s use a more similar town for comparison: Middlesex Borough. With a population just under 14,000, its population, per capita income and number of households are similar to ours in HP, although we do have more people living below the poverty level (8.9 percent versus their 2.1 percent). Middlesex has the same “Borough, weak mayor/strong council” style of government as we do. What Middlesex borough does not have is a big box store. So why didn’t Mandel compare us to them? Because it doesn’t fit her argument.
That’s why I ‘m taking Bethany Mandel to task for her NY Post article. Highland Park has high property taxes, we all know this. New Jersey has some of the highest property taxes in the country, red or blue leanings aside. Part of this is because we have so many people in such a small area. NJ has more students to teach, more garbage to pick up and many, many more roads to fix. If that sounds like the beginning of a joke, consider this: my cousins live in the small, mountain town of Leadville, CO. Recently a house burned to the ground and people died because, let this sink in, the water truck was too far away. The development had not been connected to city water and hence did not have fire hydrants. There are some things I’m not ready to get austere about and emergency services is one of them. One thing is for sure, high property taxes in a NJ problem, not a Highland Park problem. And with all that taxable revenue generated by Edison their tax rate is, don’t gasp, exactly the same as Highland Parks.
More than that, raising the taxes above the 2 percent cap is not Democratic shenanigans but an exemption created by redder-then-red Governor Chris Christie so that towns with outstanding loans or other fiscal responsibilities could pay for them on top of their state tax levy. As for the other hippy-dippy, feel good measures of good ol’ blue Highland Park: A bill to raise the minimum smoking age to 21 was already introduced into the State Senate a year ago and has the backing of the American Medical Association. Fracking? Well, I could fill up a whole ‘nother page on that, but suffice it to say that the Marcellus Shale is ripe for fracking and it runs under the Delaware River Valley. People in the Poconos and outside of Philly are already getting letters from gas companies to lease their land for wells. The Delaware River. Not that far away and suddenly my feel-good legislation leaves me feeling less than good. However, I am happy to live here, despite living cheaper elsewhere (Elk, NJ, anyone?). Because I don’t just live in a town, I live in vibrant, thriving community.
Susan Higgins walks to church, bikes to work and leads a local Girl Scout troop.
*Thank you, city-data.com for the insightful statistics. Here’s another: If you live in HP, you are slightly more likely to have a Bachelor’s degree than the average New Jerseyan, twice as likely to have your Master’s degree and FIVE TIMES more likely than the rest of NJ to hold a PhD. No matter what else you say about Highland Park, we are really smart.
Highland Park, NJ. (2015). www.city-data.com.
Housing in Edison Township, NJ. (2014). Sperling’s Best Places. http://www.bestplaces.net/housing/city/new_jersey/edison_township
Housing in Highland Park, NJ. (2014). Sperling’s Best Places. http://www.bestplaces.net/housing/city/new_jersey/highland_park
Livio, S.K. (June 30, 2014). NJ Senate passes bill raising smoking age to 21. www.nj.com
New Jersey State League of Municipalities. (undated). Property Taxes in NJ. www.njslom.org
Philadelphia Water Department. (2015). http://www.phillywatersheds.org/marcellus-shale-drilling-delaware-river-basin
Symons, M. (April 23, 2015). Why the 2% tax cap isn’t always 2%. myCentraljersey.com. http://www.mycentraljersey.com/story/news/politics/new-jersey/2014/08/01/nj-tax-cap-limit/13464593/
Symons, M. & Bichao, S. (Feb 3, 2015). NJ property taxes keep rising: see how high in your town. www.myCentraljersey.com. http://www.mycentraljersey.com/story/news/2015/02/02/new-jersey-property-tax-increases-by-town/22770585/
United States Census Bureau. (2010). factfinder.census.gov