Democratic Rep. John Adler calls his GOP opponent an "irresponsible tax dodger" in a campaign flier. His claims are misleading.
Property taxes are a major political issue in New Jersey, which has the highest median tax burden in the country, according to The Tax Foundation. Its median property tax is $6,320 on a home, outpacing runner-up Connecticut by almost $2,000.
‘Fail to pay?’ Not really.
But did Jon Runyan, a former Philadelphia Eagles lineman, "fail to pay his property taxes on 33 separate occasions"? Not really. Runyan has made 33 late payments on real estate taxes for two properties: his home in New Jersey and another in Texas. But all taxes have been paid.
Nevertheless, the mailer repeatedly invites voters to think he still hasn’t paid his property taxes. For example, it says: "The next time you hear Jon Runyan promise lower taxes, ask him to pay his own taxes first."
Runyan’s campaign provided us with tax records showing that his late tax payments started in 1999 on his Texas property. Each time, though, the documents show Runyan paid the taxes, plus penalties for late payments. His first late payment in New Jersey came in 2005, and again all taxes and penalties have been paid. Most of the late payments were made within one month of the due date. Three Texas tax bills were paid more than seven months late (two in 2001 and one in 2002).
The mailer also claims Runyan "concocted a phony scheme" to avoid paying $20,000 in property taxes. In fact, Runyan did nothing illegal, taking advantage of a rather permissive state law granting tax breaks to "farmland" properties.
Runyan’s New Jersey home consists of 20 acres that he registers as farmland. As a result of the New Jersey Farmland Assessment Act of 1964, residents may receive large tax breaks on land that produces "at least $500 per year for the first 5 acres, plus an average of $5 per acre for each acre over 5." In the case of woodland products, the $5 per acre requirement is reduced to 50 cents per acre. Runyan uses 15 acres of his "farmland" to sell firewood, which produces the required profit. The Associated Press reports that last year he sold $810 worth of wood, easily qualifying him to register the land under the 1964 law.
It’s true, as the mailer says, that Runyan also keeps four donkeys on the property. According to page 7 of the state’s assessment guide, Runyan’s additional five acres containing the livestock is contiguous to the woodland, thereby qualifying all 20 acres for a farmland assessment.
Runyan legally received his property tax break, and the New York Times reported that he’s not the only one to take advantage of this law. The tax provisions have been around for 46 years, and certainly weren’t "concocted" by Runyan. The state Legislature, of which Adler was a member for 17 years, made the rules and did not change the minimum requirements for qualification.
Runyan campaign consultant Chris Russell first alerted us to this mailer, saying it is "filled with inaccuracies and outright lies" and that "your eyes will fall out of your head after looking at this." Our eyes are still firmly in place, and we found nothing that is factually false. But some of the claims are misleading.
As to whether Runyan’s "scheme" is "phony" and whether Runyan is an "irresponsible tax dodger " — those are the Adler campaign’s opinions, which we’ll leave to readers to judge for themselves.
– Joshua Goldman
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