How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Opinion: Amid gaping budget gap, N.J. plays numbers game with pension payments

Former controversial Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, in her book “Radical: Fighting to Put Students First,” wrote that at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard she learned that data can be manipulated. “Two academics can look at the same set of data and come to wildly different conclusions based on the biases they bring to their research. The most valuable skill I learned … was to never take numbers at face value, to always dig in and analyze to see what’s really happening in any given situation.” Rhee’s words resonate with me.

In September 2012, Marlboro Township launched Shop Marlboro, a rewards program whereby people earn property-tax credits by patronizing local businesses. When they sign up for the program, they receive a free card that can be swiped at various area businesses. Instead of saving money, like a typical reward program, they earn property-tax credits. So far 1,700 residents and 50 businesses have signed on.

When they pay a $100 bill at a participating merchant, a predetermined percentage goes toward their property-tax discount. The private company issuing the credit card is paid a percentage of the discount offered by the merchant. Since the program will cut into store profits, the key will be whether participating stores gain sufficient new customers to make the numbers work.

So far, Marlboro taxpayers have saved about $20,000 in property taxes under the program. Is this a good idea or just tinkering with the numbers and a way to avoid addressing New Jersey’s most fundamental financial problems: relying far too heavily on property taxes as a means of financing government services?

Much has been written about the demise of the great American newspaper. Yet, Warren Buffett, one of the greatest investors of all time, over the past few years has bought 29 dailies. Four years ago, Buffett told Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that he wouldn’t buy a newspaper at any price. Now, he indicates he is committed to buying additional papers “at appropriate prices – and that means at a very low multiple of current earnings. … Papers delivering comprehensive and reliable information to tightly bound communities and having a sensible internet strategy will remain viable for a long time,” he said.

When Buffett was asked whether he was considering buying The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., the Oracle of Omaha indicated, “It’s solely a question of the specifics of it and the price.” It’s how you look at the numbers.

This year, the over/under betting line on how many games the 76ers basketball team would win was 12 (at the start of the season, you could place a bet on whether the 76ers would win more or less than 12 games). A few weeks into their season, the 76ers were 8 and 12. After a record-tying 26-game losing streak, the 76ers ended up with 17 wins and 65 losses. Should fans be pleased they won more games than was prognosticated? Some fans will be satisfied with the effort, most will not.

Statistics and data are frequently used to bolster a weak argument. Before deciding whether we buy into someone’s position, we need to make sure that statistics that are cited support the underlying logic of the argument. Mark Twain was making this point when he wrote: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Over the years, I’ve been periodically contacted by a Times reader regarding my views on the state’s deficit. He has pointed out that, in the early ’70s, New Jersey had no state income tax, no gambling, no state lottery, a 3 percent sales tax and much lower property taxes. Today, we have an income tax of almost 9 percent on top wage earners, a 7 percent sales tax, both casino gambling and the lottery and the highest property taxes in the nation.

His question to me was: Does New Jersey have a spending problem or is the problem that we do not tax our citizens enough? He thinks we have a spending problem. I believe we rely too heavily on the wrong types of taxes — i.e. property taxes vs. income and luxury taxes — and spend too much in certain areas and too little in others. There are many areas where I would like to see cuts made, but based on my progressive biases, they are dramatically different than those most conservatives would be comfortable with.

Gov. Christie has announced that he needs to come up with more than $2 billion to cover anticipated budget shortfalls for the current and next fiscal years. According to The Times, the governor said he “plans to take $2.43 billion budgeted for the pension fund during this fiscal year and the next one to balance his budgets.” Thus, it is not only the magnitude of a number, but in which fiscal year you count it.

A pending lawsuit will determine whether the state will be required to make future payments on time and whether it can eliminate negotiated cost-of-living adjustments. “It’s one thing to change the rules in the middle of the game, it’s another to change the score after the game is over, and that’s what the state did when it eliminated COLAs,” said one of the plaintiffs in the case.

I guess it’s not only how you look at the numbers, but whether you adhere to them or in which year you count them.