TOMS RIVER, N.J. (AP) — Superstorm Sandy may have one more nasty surprise still to come: higher taxes.
The math is simple and cruel. The storm left fewer properties standing, often wrecking waterfront communities that paid the highest taxes because of the desirability of living near the water.
Unless shore towns from Rhode Island to New Jersey get a big influx of aid from the state and federal governments, which are themselves strapped for cash, they will have no choice but to raise taxes on homes and businesses that survived to make up for the loss. Even with federal reimbursement of 75 percent, the towns — many of which were already struggling before the storm — could still be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars.
"Hopefully taxes won't go up; we all have individual bills that we're going to have to worry about," said Ralph Isaacs, a 71-year-old retired teacher whose home in Long Beach, N.Y., was flooded with 18 inches of water, knocking out the electricity and heat and forcing him and his wife into a rented recreational vehicle for 17 days. "We're pretty sure the insurance money is not going to cover everything."
Toms River, where 5,000 residents are still out of their homes, recently passed a $35 million emergency appropriation; debris removal alone is costing it $1 million a week. The township's Ortley Beach section, where property values and taxes were highest, saw 225 homes destroyed. Administrator Paul Shives asked state officials this week for three to five years of extra state aid.
Right now, he said, it is impossible for towns like his to even consider formulating a budget without knowing how much tax money will be coming in. Shore towns especially are expecting a wave of tax appeals from storm-damaged or destroyed homes that will lower the towns' tax bases, though that doesn't appear to have begun in earnest yet.
The realities have touched off an intense push to get the federal government to assume the largest share of the cost. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week upped his state's reimbursement request from $30 billion to $42 billion; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie asked Wednesday for $36.8 billion; and Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is asking for more than $3 billion.
All three governors are working together to get aid delivered, and Cuomo said most of the recovery should be paid for by the federal government.
"To try to finance (recovery costs) through taxes would incapacitate this state," said Cuomo, who noted the cost of repairing just one subway station in lower Manhattan will be $600 million.
Christie — who this week announced his campaign for a second term amid high poll ratings for his handling of the storm and who is considered a leading potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016 — has told residents in storm-damaged areas to expect to pay higher taxes. This month, he told communities they can exempt storm recovery costs from a state-imposed 2 percent limit on property tax increases.
"You know, it's got to be paid for," said Christie, whose constituents already pay among the highest property taxes in the nation. "There's no magic money tree. But I think most people's towns will recognize that if they believe that the money is being spent reasonably and responsibly to rebuild their towns, they'll be happy to do it."
Vinny Curtain, whose Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., home was damaged by flooding, agreed — reluctantly.
"Every town up and down from Long Island, Staten Island to Long Beach Island is dealing with this," he said. "They're all going to face the same problem. If spending continues — and it has to — and the tax base goes down, you've got to make it up from somewhere. It's got to be paid for. It's definitely a concern."
With local towns reeling and state governments equally cash-strapped, many are looking to the federal government to make things right through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the arm of government that has paid out billions in disaster recovery funds for Midwestern floods, tornadoes and Hurricane Katrina, among others.