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Some Welcome Numbers for New Jersey

Jun 12, 2007

By JAMES AHEARN

NEW JERSEY is the top, or darn close. I have some numbers here that prove it. Take automobile insurance. New Jersey drivers spend more on car insurance than drivers in any other state, an average of nearly $1,100 a year. Granted, this is not a distinction we should brag about.

All right then, take public-school funding. If dollars spent were proportionate to results achieved, we would be justly proud, a community of world-class scholars. Spending per student is higher in New Jersey, at $13,800 a year, than in any other state but New York, which spends $319 more.

You do not have to search long to find why schooling is so costly here. New Jersey ranks third in average teacher salaries, at $56,635, only $1,000 or so less than the first- and second-ranked states, Connecticut and California. Also, teacher health and pension benefits are good here, meaning they are costly.

Where does most of the money for New Jersey schools come from? You know the answer: property taxes. They are higher here on average than in any other state. We are No. 1! New efforts to limit school and municipal spending, and to curb pension abuses, will have an impact eventually, but they haven't taken hold yet.

So it's no wonder New Jerseyans complain. They're entitled. Judging by the numbers, you might suppose that residents would be itching to get out of the state, that at retirement they would hie themselves off to Florida or the Poconos. Some are, but many aren't.

A recent analysis by the Asbury Park Press shows that 76 percent of state, local and school employees continue to live here in retirement, despite the property taxes and the high cost of living.

True, some retirees are drawing quite cushy pensions. The top government pension in New Jersey, $136,850, is paid to Robert Davenport, 69, former executive director of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission. But the average pension is much more modest $22,337, the Press calculates.

Of the 210,000 retirees in the four major pension systems, 160,000 live in New Jersey. The next largest groups are in Florida (16,825), Pennsylvania (8,500), and North Carolina (3,700).

Auto insurance costs

As for those high automobile insurance premiums, the first thing to understand is that they are high in part because many of us drive nice cars and choose comprehensive collision and liability coverage. We buy more protection than the state requires.

The second thing is that rates have topped out and have begun to fall. The average insurance bill now is about what it was five years ago. This is chiefly because of legislation that granted insurers much more latitude in setting rates.

You might have supposed that the insurance companies would have taken that as an opportunity to really sock it to motorists. Didn't happen. A competitive insurance market reappeared, companies sought out different niches in which to specialize, and motorists benefited, receiving nearly $1 billion in rate reductions and dividends since 2003.

Further, The Record reports, there has been a precipitous decline in motorist complaints about their insurers. From 2004 to 2006, complaints dropped from 6,100 to 2,465, a reduction of 60 percent.

What looks like more good news for car owners is a recent announcement by the state Treasury Department. It issued an invitation for contractors to bid on modernizing and operating the vehicle-emissions testing system. The document setting the rules for the bidding runs 122 detailed pages and is the product of two years of preparation. The contrast with the situation a decade ago, when the current system began, is marked.

Remember that fiasco? Only one bid was submitted, by a California firm that had no experience with emissions testing. It calculated, correctly, that politics, not competence, would determine who got the New Jersey contract, and it proceeded accordingly.

Learning from the past

The contractor, Parsons Infrastructure and Technology, was unable to deliver a workable system by the deadline of December 1999. When the thing finally got going, motorists had to endure hours-long waits at inspection stations, in freezing weather.

An investigation by the State Commission of Investigation concluded that the system was "a mammoth boondoggle." Actually, that may have understated the situation. This was a screw-up that deserved Guinness World Record recognition.

The new contract calls for replacing car-testing treadmills with new, computerized equipment. Motorcycles will no longer be tested. The winner of the contract will also maintain the inspection lanes. And the term of the contract will be five years, not 10. Sounds good, but we've learned from experience to keep our fingers crossed.

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James Ahearn is former managing editor of The Record. Send comments about this column to The Record at letterstotheeditor@northjersey.com.

(c) 2007 Record, The; Bergen County, N.J.. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.



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