New Jersey mayors huddle on bridge repairs, pension worries

 New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox addresses mayors gathered Wednesday at an annual conference in Trenton. (Phil Gregory/WHYY)

New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox addresses mayors gathered Wednesday at an annual conference in Trenton. (Phil Gregory/WHYY)

As mayors from throughout New Jersey gathered at the Statehouse in Trenton, two major concerns were on their minds.

 

Replenishing the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which will be depleted by the end of June, and the possibility of relinquishing some of their towns’ pension funds took precedence during the annual New Jersey League of Municipalities meeting.

Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox assured municipal leaders that state officials are nearing agreement on a plan to raise money for road and bridge repairs and construction.

In the absence of such an agreement, Fox said, “People won’t be working on roadwork. But more importantly, companies in this state need to know what we’re doing in terms of investment.

“It’ll make it easier for them to make decisions if we can tell them where we’re going to widen roads, where we’re going to build bridges, and mass transit,” he said.

One of the most often-mentioned proposals for raising funds is an increase in the state’s gas tax. But many legislators oppose that idea,

“I don’t think it’s acceptable to the people of this state that we implement higher taxes,” said state Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth. “We’re really going to have to push ourselves to come up with other creative solutions.”

But Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, said he is convinced the gas tax is the most effective way of raising revenue for transportation.

“There are lots of other things you could raise, but you have to raise them to incredible levels to even come close to matching the amount of revenue you could raise through a gas tax,” he said Wednesday.

And if the state doesn’t raise its tax on gas, one of the lowest in the country, municipalities will have to raise local taxes to finance road and bridge repairs.

“Nobody wants to raise taxes, but any way you look at it, taxes are going to go up, whether we do something with the gas tax, the petroleum tax — or municipalities are going to have to do it on their own, so property taxes are going to go up,” he said.

The mayors have another financial worry – the state’s underfunded pension system that is about $80 billion in arrears.

Piscataway Mayor Brian Wahler, president of the League of Municipalities, said he’s concerned Gov. Chris Christie’s pension and health benefit study committee might recommend taking pension money from towns and counties and merging it with the state pension system.

“Which would be to the detriment of our towns and cities,” he said. “We would automatically get a downgrading in our credit rating because we’re funded at 75 percent right now whereas the state is only under 50 percent.”

And it’s not the answer, said Senate President Steve Sweeney.

“The counties and municipalities have done their part, they put their money in, and they shouldn’t do anything to try to blend it so we can hide the lapses of funding that we did,” Sweeney said.

Christie reduced contributions in the last fiscal year because state revenues fell short of projections.And some lawmakers wonder where the state will get the money to make the full pension payment required by reforms enacted in 2011.

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