I read with interest about the controversy over State Senator Ellen Karcher’s farm. Her opponent in this year’s election, Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck, has made an issue out of the fact that Karcher and her husband, Dr. John Hochberg, get a $14,000.00 property tax break because 6 acres of their home in Marlboro is classified as a farm. They grow Christmas trees and sell them to their friends. I’ve heard about this tax break. Former Governor Whitman has a farm in Hunterdon County and it was a controversy during one of her campaigns. I’ve seen cows grazing around a mansion on Navesink River Road in Middletown. That must be one of those farms.
My wife and I raise fish. Well, she really raises them. I just pay for it. We didn’t set out to do this. We bought 8 fancy gold fish a couple of years ago for a pond we dug on our property. My wife did such a great job making the pond system work that by the end of our first season we had 157 fish. This was very alarming to me, as I realized that another year of this and we would have 37,000 fish.
As a businessman, I have learned to look for the opportunity in every problem, and I set out to see if I could get a property tax break by declaring my home a fish farm. You only need to generate $500 in revenue a year to be a farm and get that tax break. That would be easy with so many fish. We could under cut everyone else’s price and still sell way more than $500 in fish. But, to qualify for a farm, you needed five acres of land. Five acres! I had a 200 cubic feet producing $37,000 worth of fish if I sold them for only $1.00 each. What did I need five acres for? I needed them for the tax break. Oh well. That must be why there are no farms in Highlands.
I can understand farms getting a property tax break. Agriculture is still an important part of the New Jersey economy. According the State Department of Agriculture’s web site, New Jersey has 9600 farms and contributes $64 billion dollars to our economy every year. $64 billion dollars! That’s 69% of our unfunded pension liability for state workers! That is a lot a fruit and vegetables, flowers, trees and fish. And none of those creatures needs an education, so a property tax break is fair.
But is it fair that a property that only generates $500 into the economy gets a big $14,000 property tax break? The farm assessment program probably made sense back in the days when $500 could buy a new car or 5 acres of land and property taxes were affordable for most. $500 is not what it used to be, and the farm assessment program should be adjusted to close what is now a loophole. Farmers should get the tax break. Not wealthy hobbyists with five acres. With property taxes driving seniors and the middle class workers out of New Jersey, closing this loophole by requiring that a farm generate $100,000 in revenue would not be unreasonable. It would ease the burden on non-farmers and cover a pension or two.
Originally published in The Courier October 11, 2007