Sutton, 65, a widow who collects a pension and Social Security benefits, said she makes ends meet every month. But she said her financial situation is probably the exception in the state with the nation's highest property taxes.
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That's why she joined an AARP New Jersey telephone bank of about a dozen members to advocate for property tax relief for older people. The volunteers urged fellow members to send their legislators and Republican Gov. Chris Christie a message: Do not try to balance the state budget on the backs of low-income older people. The phone bank's effort resulted in more than 6,000 calls to the governor's office.
Other volunteers wrote letters to state officials. Ocean View resident Ruthann Wohlforth, 70, told her story in a YouTube video produced by AARP New Jersey.
The grassroots effort paid off. State legislators and Christie approved $61 million in the budget to reverse the cuts they had made in 2010 to the popular "Senior Freeze" program, which guarantees low-income people over 65 won't have to pay ever-increasing property taxes. If property taxes increase after a person enters the program, the state will send the taxpayer a check to make up the difference. Despite line-item vetoes to slash what he called "reckless" spending elsewhere in the budget, Christie allowed the Senior Freeze budget item to become law.
"This is a very important issue. You hear absolute horror stories about people unable to pay their bills," said Sutton. "People are really hurting out there. It's very painful to hear."
Last year's budget cuts left the 136,295 households in the program with a reimbursement that did not cover the full amount of the property tax increase.
To be eligible, a property owner 65 or older must have a combined income for 2009 and 2010 of $70,000 or less; lived in the current home for at least three years; and been a state resident for 10 years.
The budget also roughly doubled the Homestead Credit for seniors and disabled persons to $540 for households earning up to $150,000. The application deadline for both the Senior Freeze and the Homestead Credit have been extended to Oct. 31.
New Jersey homeowners paid an average property tax of $7,576 last year, a 4.1 percent rise over 2009.
"AARP recognizes that property taxes are a perennial topic of great concern to our members in New Jersey," said Jim Dieterle, AARP New Jersey state director.
Sutton is among nearly 1.2 million New Jersey residents who are 65 and older, according to the latest U.S. Census. A wave of about 150,000 boomers turn 65 this year and next in the state, making them eligible for many government benefits, such as the Senior Freeze and the Homestead Credit.
"Every penny goes someplace," Sutton said of her household budget. "I spend so many dollars for food, so much for gas. Everything is budgeted." Property tax is her biggest bill.
Dieterle said the best way to care for older residents is to help them remain in their homes as long as possible. Whether they get a break on property taxes is often the determining factor.
"AARP is strictly nonpartisan, but we are engaged in the political process on behalf of our members in order to educate policymakers and the public about the choices in this difficult economic environment," he said.
Property taxes and utility bills promise to be hot-button issues in the November election, when all 120 seats in the legislature are on the ballot.
AARP is part of a coalition urging state lawmakers to oppose legislation that would eliminate regulatory oversight of utility services and rates for telecommunications and electricity.
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George E. Jordan is a freelance writer and editor based in Teaneck, N.J.
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