Hiking in Hoboken

Revolting property taxes


Hoboken, New Jersey, is not exactly known for its good governance. Steve Cappiello, mayor from 1973 to 1985, was arrested for drunk driving in 2007 after ramming into a parked government car and then fleeing the scene. Thomas Vezzetti, mayor from 1985 to 1988, was called "the wackiest mayor in America" by the New York Daily News. And the corruption and bribery of Anthony Russo, mayor from 1993 to 2001, was so over the top that he was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison.

Still, Hoboken's current administration may go down as the most hated in modern history. In late 2008, a state supervisor, sent in because the local government failed to pass a budget, imposed a property tax increase of 47 percent. The steep hike was necessary, officials claimed, because the city of 40,000 faced a shortfall of more than $15 million.

Hundreds of angry anti-tax demonstrators stormed City Hall in December and again in March, demanding a recall of council members and carrying a tarred-and-feathered effigy of embattled Mayor Dave Roberts. "Mistakes were made by this administration," Roberts told the crowd. Protesters launched websites at lowerhobokentaxes.com and hobokenrevolt.com, hoping to hook up with the nationwide "Tea Party" demonstrations against Barack Obama's economic policies.

In February, Obama insisted that "if your family earns less than $250,000 a year, you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime." In Hoboken, owners of houses assessed at the local median price of $250,000 have seen their annual property taxes raised by $2,600. The tax hike especially hurts seniors living on fixed incomes, who suddenly can't afford a house they've long owned.

For this, New Jersey has an answer: Seniors are eligible for the state's Property Tax Reimbursement Program, so long as they have lived in New Jersey continuously for more than a decade, have occupied their current residences for at least four years, and can navigate the tax bureaucracy. Instead of dealing with all that, many residents are deciding to sell. But when the worst housing market in decades combines with some of the highest property taxes in the nation, buyers may be hard to come by.