TRENTON — Mayors and council members gathered Wednesday at the Statehouse for their annual lobbying event that includes panels with lawmakers and Cabinet members.

Although it came one day after Gov. Phil Murphy proposed a $37.4 billion budget, they posed few questions about the spending plan – but a ton about affordable housing.

With lawsuits and judges now determining affordable housing obligations, and the Council on Affordable Housing effectively defunct, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said a solution to the long-neglected issue will be a priority of the Murphy administration.

Murphy said as a candidate that New Jersey faces an affordable housing crisis, but Oliver said there’s also a price to pay for overdevelopment.

“Let’s just head-on challenge and take on this thing that’s kind of been a money on our backs for decades in New Jersey,” Oliver said at the New Jersey League of Municipalities event.

West Windsor Mayor Hemant Marathe said it’s encouraging to hear it’ll be a priority but that it must come quickly. His township will spend a half-million dollars on lawyers in two years and is being ordered to grow its population 20 percent, he said.

“Stop the bleeding. Stop the courts from this madness,” Marathe said.

Mayors were interested to hear more about Murphy’s intention to appoint a “shared services czar” sometime soon. Oliver said it’s a first step toward reopening a conversation about local government spending started a decade ago by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester.

Oliver said shared services might not work everywhere but must be considered if people are serious about dealing the nation’s highest property taxes. She said an analysis will have to be made of what incentives the state is prepared to offer towns who share.

“But we’re way away, away, away from that right now. I think we’re at discussion stage,” Oliver said.

Local officials line up to ask questions at "Mayors' Day" at the Statehouse. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)
Local officials line up to ask questions at "Mayors' Day" at the Statehouse. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)

Ridgefield Park Mayor George Fosdick said the property tax system needs a bigger change than that because shared services often don’t save enough money to get residents to agree to change.

“Now, all dollars are important. I understand that,” Fosdick said. “But when I talk to a local resident and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to save $100,000 and by the way your quarterly tax bill is going to be reduced by $6,’ she looks at me and laughs.”

State aid to municipalities is basically unchanged in Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget. Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr said that’s only the case because the state is continuing to shortchange towns and cities hundreds of millions in taxes that used to be paid directly to them by utility companies.

“Those taxes are collected for our behalf. And those taxes do not makes its way back,” said Mahr, who said the funds should be restored “if we want to talk about property tax relief, real property tax relief.”

Estell Manor Mayor Joe Venezia said municipalities should file a class-action lawsuit if the state continues to withhold some of the revenues from the energy gross receipts tax.

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