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Equestra residents focus attention on school funding issues

HOWELL – Representatives of the Howell K-8 School District recently met with residents of Equestra, a 55-and-over community, for a discussion of taxes, school funding, state tax initiatives and state mandates.

Over the past several years, residents of Equesta, Route 33, Howell, have spoken publicly about the amount of property taxes they pay, and specifically the amount of their property taxes that fund local schools.

Homes in Equestra are generally assessed between $430,000 and $600,000, which can yield a total property tax bill in the range of $12,000 to $14,000, according to Peter Armenia, who is a member of Equestra’s Civic Issues Committee (CIC).

In New Jersey, most of an individual’s property taxes – up to 70 percent in some municipalities – pay for the operation of their community’s schools. The balance of their property taxes fund municipal and county governments, fire districts and open space preservation.

“There is just no relief for us ever,” Armenia said.

Howell Superintendent of Schools Joseph Isola and Assistant Superintendent Ronald Sanasac met with the CIC to open a dialogue about issues of concern to the adult community’s residents.

The CIC is appointed by Equestra’s Board of Directors. Its role is to be informed and to keep residents of the community informed about local, state and federal issues which are relevant to the homeowners and to serve as a two-way communications channel between Equestra residents and public officials on broader issues at all government levels.

Isola said school district administrators were approached by Equestra residents when the Howell Board of Education presented its budget for the 2017-18 school year. He said the residents were impressed by the budget presentation and expressed their concerns about taxes to the board.

Armenia, of the CIC board, said, “We keep paying for future generations, OK, but what is our fair share? The state is doing nothing about it. What does (the state) care about what we are doing in Equestra or other communities like us?”

The meeting between the representatives of the adult community and the school district helped to open the lines of communication.

Armenia said several areas of concern – areas where the school district might be able to save money – were mentioned. While no formal decisions were made, he called the meeting “good” because “there was honesty on both sides.”

Isola called the meeting “good, cordial and purposeful” and said the school district’s representatives wanted to “broaden the information that exists to our town’s residents.”

Sanasac said the Equestra residents were “frustrated with levels of state funding.”

“Where the failure of the federal (government) or the state to fully fund (schools) falls is on the real estate taxpayers. The fact that seniors as people are traditionally asset rich and income poor are negatively impacted by that, you know if all your wealth is tied up in real estate and you have to pay taxes on it, your Social Security check does not go very far,” Sanasac said.

“What could we make a difference on, together in Trenton?” Sanasac said. “It was really more about as a community, how do we identify the issues that might make our funding formula better.”

Armenia said the type of discussion the meeting attendees had could lead to changes that reach farther than Howell.

“I think more important than that, if we could do something, it is going to generate a lot more interest in some other communities, not only in Howell, but across Monmouth County to be able to maybe partner and get some more resources and to put the kind of pressure on elected officials to really have some tax reform,” Armenia said.

School board member Al Miller said the representatives of the two groups discussed ways they may be able to work together in the future.

“It was the beginning stages, we really did not focus on any particular item to bring to the Legislature at this point … it is a work in progress,” Miller said.

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