Chances are, if you’re like most people today, you’re seeing or reading the news, watching the stock market rollercoaster, worrying about how you’ll pay the bills, your taxes, your rent or mortgage, wondering how you’ll handle your kids’ schooling and childcare while hoping your job is secure.

Chances are, also, that putting an addition or a new roof on your house, or otherwise making big improvements to your property, isn’t at the top of your priority list. Yet it seems the Township Council — and perhaps the Planning Board, as well – believes that it is.

At its July 14th meeting, the Township Council unanimously approved a resolution noting its intent to declare the entire Township of Belleville an “Area In Need of Rehabilitation” under the authority of the state “Local Redevelopment and Housing Law.” This Thursday, August 13th, as part of a full agenda, the Planning Board is expected to review the resolution and then make recommendations to the Town Council.

In a truly brazen move that seems to scream “the fix is in,” or at least lends to the Town Council the appearance of having ESP, the resolution bizarrely anticipates that the Planning Board “recommended” that the resolution be adopted at the Planning Board’s August 13th meeting. Then again, thanks to a silent and complicit Town Council that has not challenged Mayor Michael Melham’s apparent impression that he has the right to appoint the lion’s share of Planning Board members, the Planning Board seems to function more as a rubber stamp of Team Melham’s redevelopment and gentrification agenda. So maybe the resolution’s wording isn’t so far off.

It’s a safe bet that the Town Council will accept the Planning Board’s recommendation and thus make the “Townwide Area In Need of Rehabilitation” official at its next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, August 18th.

New Jersey’s Local Redevelopment and Housing Law – What It’s All About

The New Jersey Local Redevelopment and Housing Law,” adopted in 1992 and largely based on the 1949 Blighted Areas Act, gives local governments broad powers and tools to declare parts of a city or town in need of rehabilitation or redevelopment.

Through the law, cities and towns can make these declarations after the planning board reviews and recommends the designation. All states have similar laws, and each has their own criteria and procedures in order to take action.

Once the designation is made official, the local government has many tools to encourage development, re-development and rehabilitation of property: public-private partnerships for redevelopment, creation of rehabilitation programs or, in some cases, condemnation of properties and seizure of property through eminent domain, to name a few possibilities. (Note: The resolution the Town Council voted on states that it may use all tools and means available to it in the law, with the exception of condemnation and eminent domain.)

Responding to public questions about this resolution, Mayor Melham stated that the “Area In Need of Rehabilitation” designation the Town Council is seeking could make it possible to create a program to give residents an opportunity to defer payment of property tax assessment increases tied to capital improvements on certain residential properties. Similar programs in other New Jersey towns and cities allowed for partial deferment of property tax assessment on improvements for a period of five years. For example, if a resident was to put an addition on their home, the assessment for that improvement would be phased in over five years, after which the resident would pay the full assessment.

Towns such as Bloomfield, the Village of South Orange as well as the cities of Harrison, Trenton, Newark, Millville and Bridgeton have declared all or part of their towns/cities “areas in need of rehabilitation.” Belleville Watch has sent public records requests to several of these municipalities; so far, only Bloomfield, Bridgeton and the city of Somers Point in Atlantic County have responded.

If This Is Such A Great Idea, Why Is It Only Now Being Offered?

In interviews with local media, Mayor Melham claims he and the Town Council had been “unfairly criticized” for giving tax breaks to developers, while not considering tax relief for residents. He said the plan to designate the town an “Area In Need of Rehabilitation” would disprove the allegations by giving residents an opportunity to get a property tax break for capital improvements.

The Town Council has rightfully come under fire for approving tax abatements or long-term tax exemptions to developers. Mayor Melham has defended these actions time and again as being essential to bringing economic development to Belleville.

In light of this, one might wonder why, two years into the Melham administration, the Town Council would suddenly unveil this plan and pitch it as great for residents. Team Melham – the mayor and councilmembers-at-large Naomy De Pena and Thomas Graziano, all who ran in 2018 on a platform of economic progress and better government, as well as a break with Belleville’s often ugly politics – would have been wise to have made this plan a staple of their campaign.

The sudden introduction of this plan by the Town Council — two years into the Melham administration — appears to be a poor attempt to play at being the “taxpayer’s friend” while giving out lengthy and generous tax breaks, like so many pieces of candy, to wealthy developers.

Tax Breaks Tied to Improvements Don’t Mean Much To People With Little Money to Spend

Let’s assume for a moment that the plan the Town Council is promoting is everything they are promising: a tax break/deferment on improvements made to single or two-family homes, with the increased assessment phased in over 5 years. In the middle of a pandemic-induced recession where New Jersey has a 16 percent unemployment rate and the nation’s second worst unemployment recovery rate, your average Belleville resident either don’t have money to spend on capital improvements to their properties, or if they do, they’re not inclined to spend it on such improvements while facing an uncertain future.

People worried about their jobs, their kids’ education, their mortgage and bills and debt probably aren’t thinking about a new roof (unless it’s an emergency, of course,) an addition on the house, an in-ground pool or other property improvements. At best, the Town Council’s plan – if it is truly as it is being pitched – could be chalked up to a case of good intentions at a bad time.

Belleville residents pay high property taxes for living in such a small town. Tax breaks on a new roof, deck or room isn’t going to do much to change that.

Selling Square Pegs To Fill Round Holes

In perfect circumstances, and in a much better economy, what the Town Council is proposing might actually be beneficial. Who wouldn’t want a tax break in return for making improvements on their home and property?

Well, you might be surprised. In response to Belleville Watch’s inquiry to Somers Point about declaring the city being in need of rehabilitation in 2014 and any associated programs offered to residents, City Administrator Jason Front said in an e-mail that few, if any, of Somers Point residents actually applied to the program, which ran from 2014 to 2019.

When you match up this proposal with the development and gentrification agenda that the Melham Town Council – led by a man seemingly enamored with real estate and large-scale redevelopment schemes — has pursued since July 1, 2018, you can forgive Your Belleville Watchdog for being a bit skeptical. Rare is the government plan or program that has a single, simple and beneficial purpose.

Belleville residents need real tax relief. Budgets seem to soar every year, and residents pay a pretty penny in property taxes for such a small town. They need real solutions, — ones mindful of Belleville’s taxpayers and suitable to Belleville as a town with a rich history and suburban character. Otherwise, Belleville will continue to bleed residents who love living here, but who can no longer afford to. The problem of high property taxes in Belleville won’t be solved by a tax break or deferment on property improvements, especially in circumstances our nation hasn’t seen since the early 20th Century.