Include Bridgeton

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

As I write this, Assembly Bill 5683 is working its way through the State legislature. The bill, sponsored by Assemblywomen Verlina Reynolds-Jackson from District 15 and Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly from District 35, would modify New Jersey’s Garden State Growth Zone (GSGZ) property tax exemption program. It is a program that exists in Atlantic City, Camden, Passaic, Paterson, and Trenton. Development entities within their zones can redevelop property and be granted a 20-year property tax exemption on improvements.

For resource-poor urbanized communities, the GSGZ program is the “golden ticket” when it comes to revitalization efforts as it incentivizes developers to undertake projects in the designated zone, knowing that on the back end, they will enjoy the benefits of a long-term exemption.

The new bill would enable other municipalities to opt into the GSGZ property tax exemption program. The criteria for those seeking to opt in include a Municipal Revitalization Index distress score of at least 75, meeting the criteria for designation as an urban aid municipality in State FY 2019, and either being subject to financial restrictions imposed by the “Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act,” or restricted in its ability to levy taxes on property because the State owns or controls 25 percent of the land area or the feds own or control 50 acres in that community.

Bridgeton’s Municipal Revitalization Index distress score is 84.1 and we met the criteria for designation as an urban aid municipality in State FY 2019. We come up just a little short in terms of the amount of land area specifically owned or controlled by the State. That said, we have a significant amount of our land that is exempt from taxation precisely because it’s publically owned (i.e. municipal, county, state, federal).

Bridgeton is the county seat and we host the State’s largest prison. Within our 6.2 square miles, we have a decent open space and recreation inventory that hosts our City Park and zoo and smaller community recreation spots. Using only land owned or controlled by the State doesn’t ensure that deserving communities benefit from GSGZ.

Eighteen percent of Bridgeton’s parcels are exempt from taxation with an assessed value of $527,376,400. The remaining parcels have an assessed value of $484,720,575. But what is controlled by government does not tell the whole story. As the county seat being surrounded by rural townships hosting primarily farms, Bridgeton is the place where migrant farm labor primarily comes to find housing, and is home to more schools, churches, and nonprofit organizations that exist to serve them, which are also exempt.

Throw in other challenges that come with being a landlocked urbanized community, including the fears of some toward minority-majority communities, and you can see how revitalization might be hard to achieve. Also working against revitalization is the fact that we’re the place for some of the “not-in-my-backyard” initiatives other communities hope to avoid, such as reentry programs, halfway houses, and new jails.

Short of including Bridgeton outright as a Garden State Growth Zone community, I would ask lawmakers to consider amending the bill to allow county seats that meet the Index distress score criteria to qualify for this program as a tool to focus on revitalizing their communities.

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