MONTGOMERY, N.J. – Barbara Lehman has lived in this central New Jersey community for 30 years, but her time here is nearing an end.
She sent her children through Montgomery's well-regarded schools. And she enjoys the rolling landscape even as housing developments have spread across it in recent years.
But her property taxes have climbed 56 percent since 2000 to a knee-buckling $14,000 a year — a heavy load for a high school French teacher whose salary goes up only about 3 percent a year.
"Oh, it's terrible," Lehman said.
Despite efforts by governors and lawmakers to do something about it, New Jersey has the highest property taxes in America — a burden that is alarming young couples and retirees alike and deepening public cynicism in a state with a long and rich history of graft and self-dealing.
The average property owner in the Garden State pays about $6,000 a year in property taxes, twice the national average.
A recent analysis by The New York Times found property taxes increased two to three times faster than personal income from 2000 to 2004 in the suburbs surrounding New York City. New Jersey's booming Somerset County — where Montgomery is situated — got slammed harder than anywhere else in the region, with property taxes climbing 41 percent there while income increased but 5 percent.
Susan Horowitz and her husband just marked their 30th year in Montgomery, but they are unsure how long they will be staying. Both are retired teachers who have watched their property taxes nearly double since 2000 to about $12,500 per year.
"I look at my pension as paying my property taxes," Horowitz said. "We love living here and as long as we can afford the taxes — because we've paid off our mortgage — we'd like to stay here, but we just don't know."
The burden is blamed on a number of factors, including New Jersey's inordinately heavy reliance on property taxes. Property taxes are used to cover most county, municipal and school operations. They account for about 50 percent of taxes collected in the state, compared with a national average of about 30 percent.
In addition, because of state budget woes, most New Jersey municipalities and schools have gone five straight years without an increase in their state aid. During that time, property taxes statewide have risen, on average, 7 percent a year.
Many also pin the blame on the way many of New Jersey's 566 cities and towns insist on having their own schools, police departments, public works crews and the like, instead of consolidating services with those of other communities to reduce administrative costs.
Somerset County, for example, has 21 municipalities. Densely populated Bergen County, just across the Hudson River from New York City, has a staggering 70.
Some lawmakers are looking into merging school systems and municipalities but are likely to run into resistance from local officeholders if they try to force the issue.
Another reason for high property taxes: State and local government owe billions per year to the state's public employee pension system, which has been riddled by abuses.
Also, by court order, the state must send huge chunks of school aid to struggling urban schools, meaning less money is available for middle-class districts.
Somerset County is about an hour's drive west of New York City and has gone through explosive growth over the past two decades as the ring of commuter communities extends farther and farther west.
Its population has ballooned from about 200,000 people in 1980 to nearly 300,000, and it boasts giant new housing developments and brand-new schools. Its winding two-lane highways now get clogged during rush hour.
Somerset ranks as the seventh-wealthiest county in the country with a per capita income of $37,970, according to Census figures. Many Somerset County residents commute to New York; others work in Somerset County or close by at several big pharmaceutical companies, including Johnson & Johnson.
Much of its property taxes go toward the building of schools to accommodate the boom in population.
Lehman paid $2,500 a year in property taxes when she moved to Montgomery in 1976. By 2000, her taxes had reached about $9,000.
"I will miss it, but I'm moving somewhere where my taxes are a little lower," said Lehman, who plans to move to Long Beach Island.
Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine and the Legislature are trying to provide some relief. They plan to spend the rest of the year considering ways to cut state reliance on property taxes.
But Lehman and others are not convinced help is coming.
Phyllis Beal, a psychiatric social worker who has seen her property taxes in the Somerset County community of Franklin increase 50 percent since 2000, said: "Our legislators are so beholden to special interests in every direction."