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.