Trigger warning: This column covers a subject that many Montclair residents find traumatizing. It contains a discussion of property taxes. 

Well, the elected school board met, and the elected school board has unanimously elected a budget for school renovations that can only be passed with another election (OK, a referendum). And none too soon. Montclair’s school buildings, some of which are more than 100 years old, have needed major repairs for decades. 

Just think of it as an upgrade. I mean, you upgrade your phone every year, so why not our schools once every 50 years? Sure, $1,000 might seem like a lot for a new phone, but look, it has three lenses! And sure, the price tag for making our schools modern, safe and healthy is $188 million, but look at all the new features that will …

Wait. What? 

OK, that’s a lot of money. But unlike the three lenses on your new phone, the renovations of our school buildings are actually a necessity. Besides, the state will pay around 30% of it and the projection is that the bonds will only raise the average homeowner’s property tax by $870 a year, so …

Wait. What?  

That’s a hefty increase, big enough that even, hypothetically, a left-wing citizen who writes a wisenheimer column for Montclair Local and absolutely, 1,000% believes in supporting our public schools might feel just a wee bit hesitant about voting to increase his tax bill by that much.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I plan to vote for it. I just might have to stop first at the Rise Dispensary over in Bloomfield to help get me over the hurdle.

And I’m sure that the voters of Montclair, similarly motivated by their sense of civic responsibility, will overwhelmingly approve this absolutely necessary jump in their own taxes.

They will, won’t they?

While we ponder that, and probe the depths of our consciences (about as pleasant as getting a nasal COVID-19 test), we should also ponder something else: Why the [insert expletive] do we even have property taxes? This system of funding local governments is often described as medieval because, guess what? It is!  Originally introduced by William the Conqueror, it dates back to a time when: 1) The primary form of wealth was land ownership. 2) Only white, male property owners could vote. 

Property taxes are inherently unfair. If Elon Musk moved into my neighbor’s house, he and I would pay the same in property taxes. I’d also get to ask him for a ride in space, though I doubt we’d be friends because he’s a power-mad egomaniac, but I could still ask, couldn’t I?

Using property taxes to fund education perpetuates inequality among school districts, placing Black and brown students at further disadvantage, partly because property values in their neighborhoods remain depressed thanks to historic redlining by banks.

Property taxes are the primary obstacle to aging in place in Montclair. They’re also the cudgel used to beat back every attempt to improve schools or any other municipal service. The proposed capital improvement budget is a case in point. It’s clearly needed, yet it faces an uphill battle because of — well, you get the idea. 

So why does this antiquated, much-hated system persist? Maybe for the same reason that New Jersey has approximately 600 school districts spread over 564 municipalities – feudalism! Just joking. It’s really because all those municipalities form an interlocking mosaic of local power brokers who are intent on protecting their fiefdoms.

OK, feudalism.

Property taxes are conveniently opaque. They make it impossible to easily understand how the tax burden is distributed according to income. It’s too bad we don’t have an alternative system of taxation that does that. Oh, right, we do. Funding education out of the state income tax would place the burden more squarely on those who can carry it, which is the whole point of a progressive tax. (I’m looking at you, Elon.) 

Of course, that sort of massive change would require creative solutions to funding formulas and a tremendous show of political courage at the state level, which is not as completely and utterly hopeless as it might seem. Gov. Phil Murphy and Democrats in Trenton just proposed the ANCHOR Property Tax Relief Program, which is a sort of upgrade to the Homestead Rebate program. They recognize, if nothing else, this is a hot-button topic that cries out for a solution.

But rebate schemes don’t go far enough. Recently, the Jersey City Council passed a resolution to explore the possibility of a 1% town income tax to avoid another rate hike, proving once again that Montclair is just not as cool as we think. It’s time for a more equitable, transparent way to fund the schools. Just think of it as an upgrade. After 1,000 years under the old system, don’t you think we’re due? 

Richie Chevat
Richie Chevat

Richie Chevat is a writer, activist and Montclair resident for more than 30 years. He’s the author of the comic sci-fi novel “Rate Me Red,” the play “Who Needs Men?” and the young reader version of “A Queer History of the United States,” among other works. He can often be seen running errands around town on his bike.