Squeezed by a new 2 percent spending cap, state aid cuts and property taxpayers who want to keep the same level of services, local officials across New Jersey for the first time are seriously considering sharing core services such as police and fire protection and even merging municipalities.
Proposals that would have been political suicide just a few years ago are being pushed by such unlikely revolutionaries as Hunterdon County Freeholder Rob Walton, Readington Committeewoman Donna Simon, Somerdale Mayor Gary Passanante, Roxbury Committeeman Tim Smith and former Long Hill Mayor Gina Genovese.
"Governor Christie’s 2 percent cap put the pressure on," said Smith, whose Government Efficiency Management task force brought Morris County mayors, administrators and police chiefs together to talk about shared services.
"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restructure government in New Jersey into something more efficient, more like what exists elsewhere in the country," Smith said.
“Let’s face it, the reality is that we are all experiencing tremendous pressures with our budgets,” said Passanante, Camden County’s shared services coordinator.
"The days of bailouts and large injections of dollars from the state are over," continued Passante. "We can’t operate like we have for the last 30 or 40 years under a 2 percent cap and still provide services at the level our citizens expect. We are going to have to make decisions that we have not been comfortable making as a home-rule state in order to survive."
Camden County took center stage in the shared-services debate with the announcement Wednesday that Governor Chris Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) will be meeting with county mayors next Wednesday afternoon to discuss the creation of a regionalized police department, which has been the focal point of Passanante’s work.
Both Christie and Sweeney have been vocal in calling for an increase in shared services to hold down property taxes. Last week, the Christie administration acknowledged that property taxes rose 4.1 percent -- up from 3.3 percent in 2009 and 3.7 percent the year before -- despite thousands of layoffs of police, firefighters, municipal officials and teachers. Camden’s layoffs of 168 police and 67 firefighters -- almost half the city’s police and a third of the fire department -- made Camden County a logical focus for Christie and Sweeney.
Camden has set up two task forces to study the potential merger of its 37 municipal police departments and its various paid and volunteer fire departments and fire districts into an undetermined number of regional entities.
To encourage shared services, the county is creating an interactive database website that will show which towns have specialized equipment, list all municipal contracts and even show when employees are projected to retire so that towns can time new job-sharing agreements to when longtime employees are planning to leave.
But Camden is far from the only county that could benefit from shared services:
Somerset County taxpayers could save $17.8 million a year by consolidating its 19 municipal police departments into three regional precincts, a two-year study concluded in December. A task force with more than 50 representatives from Somerset’s 21 towns is now studying the proposal, and a second study to project savings from consolidating all of the county’s municipal courts is underway.
Morris County taxpayers could save $50 million a year by regionalizing services in five areas, including $35 million by merging the county’s 37 municipal police departments into four regional departments, a Government Efficiency Management study released in January showed. Thirteen of the county’s 39 municipalities are now actively involved in follow-up studies of the proposal.
Hunterdon County’s Shared Services Working Group is putting together a series of recommendations on which municipal services should be regionalized at the county level, and is planning to ask voter support in a non-binding referendum in November. To show inefficiencies, the task force will unveil a database next month that details and ranks the cost of municipal services on a per-household basis for each town.
Public discussion of police department mergers would have been unthinkable before the Great Recession of 2007-2009 shook state and municipal budgets. But what is more amazing is that public officials are now questioning the state’s "Multiple Municipal Madness" as the late Assembly Speaker Alan Karcher dubbed his book detailing how New Jersey ended up cramming 566 municipalities, 596 school districts and hundreds of authorities into a state 196 miles long and 65 miles wide.
"The biggest problem is government entity density,” said Kenneth G. DeRoberts, Chief Executive Officer of the Government Strategy Group, which advises counties on shared services. "We have 1,900 entities. We lead the world in governments per capita. If we wanted to do this the right way, we should start all over and decide what government entities we need to deliver the services we want."
No municipalities in New Jersey have consolidated since Pahaquarry and its seven residents merged into adjacent Hardwick Township in Warren County in 1997. However, the state Assembly and Senate this month approved legislation that would allow Merchantville Connecting for the Future, a local citizens group that had collected hundreds of signatures on petitions, to explore a merger with Cherry Hill Township, despite opposition from a Merchantville mayor and council concerned about their own political future.
The absorption of Merchantville, with 3,821 residents, by Cherry Hill, with 71,045, would be the significant municipal consolidations since Landis Township and Vineland Borough became Vineland City in 1952 and Franklin Township absorbed East Millstone in 1950.
"Cherry Hill and Merchantville would be a breakthrough because it would be one of the first citizen-driven consolidations in the world and it would show that it can be done," said Genovese, the former Morris County mayor who created the nonprofit Courage to Connect.
Genovese is taking her campaign to consolidate New Jersey’s numerous small municipalities into townships of 30,000 to 50,000 residents into the belly of the beast Friday with a seminar at Bergen County Community College in Paramus. Bergen County has a state-high 70 municipalities packed into just 247 square miles (13 of which are under water).
"We’re taking the Woodbridge mayor and Woodbridge school official because we don’t think Bergen County municipal officials can envision the level of services you can provide through consolidation,” Genovese said. “Woodbridge has a fulltime planner, grant writer, economic development officer, IT department. "It’s a model that can make New Jersey sustainable and competitive for the 21st century. More than money, it’s what you can afford to do. You can go from a three-man garbage truck to a one-man garbage truck or put solar panels on the roofs of 21 schools."
Consolidation, rather than shared services, is necessary, Genovese insisted, because "what shared services does is fracture an already fractured system."
Bill Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, noted that municipalities have been aggressively implementing shared services in a wide range of areas in an effort to control costs, but that consolidation efforts invariably run into resistance over fears of loss of community and loss of local control. Most municipal official point to the long courtships between Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, Chester Borough and Chester Township and other towns that dated for a long time, but never made it to the altar as evidence that their time is better spent on the difficult-enough task of trying to consolidate police, fire and other expensive government services.
However, Freeholder Walton’s Hunterdon County task force openly debated the merits of consolidation and the issue of home rule Saturday at an open meeting for taxpayers at the Hunterdon County Administration Building.
"Would what we define as communities change if we change political boundaries?" Walton asked. “Annandale and Whitehouse and Three Bridges are still the source of their communities even though they are parts of larger municipalities. That sort of community feeling is not going to go away.”
“Do we really lose home rule if we have a county tax assessor, instead of a local tax assessor?” asked Simon, the Readington committeewoman who chaired Christie’s campaign in Hunterdon.
“The issue with having 566 atomized towns is that you cannot help but have inefficiency,” Frenchtown Township Committeeman Jerry St. Onge contended.
The Hunterdon County Shared Services Working Group was created after Somerset County released its study showing that taxpayers could save $17.8 million through police consolidation alone. Spencer Peck, a former Clinton Township committeeman, successfully urged the Clinton Township Committee to pass a resolution asking the county freeholder board to study the financial and service implications of countywide consolidation of police, fire, emergency assistance, schools and other services. Eleven other governing bodies have since followed suit.
“Hunterdon County is the highest-taxed county in New Jersey and the third-highest-taxed county in the United States, behind only Westchester County and Nassau County in New York,” said Peck.
“High federal income taxes and state taxes are part of the reason, but so are high property taxes, and that is something we can control ourselves.
"The escalating cost of government, at all levels, is unsustainable,” he said. “It is causing a net out-migration from the state. It is driving businesses away. It is discouraging businesses and the jobs they represent from coming into the state. While we hear much about controlling costs and shared services, nothing has changed. The price keeps going up. The largest component any municipal budget is the police department. If we are going to save money, we must follow the money. If we are really serious about getting serious, then everything should be put on the table.”
The Hunterdon group met with police, fire and emergency services personnel in November, met with school representatives in January, and recently reviewed municipal budgets with mayors in preparation for an April 7 public meeting on municipal services. Following that meeting, the task force will post on the web a detailed database showing the cost of services in each of the 26 municipalities, including the cost per household, cost per person and cost per square mile of every service provided.
“We believe in government transparency and we believe taxpayers should understand fully what they are paying for and why,” said Simon, who is serving on the working group along with Walton, St. Onge, Clinton Town Councilman Dan Shea and West Amwell Board of Education member Rob Tomenchock.
Providing municipal officials and citizens the information they need to assess where shared services makes sense and can make the most money is at the core of the new municipal reinventing government movement
Perhaps the most practical shared-services tool is being developed in Camden County, where Passanante is working with faculty and students from Rutgers University and Rowan University to develop an interactive website database called askgovfirst.org that is tentatively scheduled to be rolled out as a beta site in May.
“We’ve created a one-stop directory of resources -- fed, state, county and local -- for municipal officials that is designed to work in the way government agencies work,” Passanante said. “It is organized into separate categories, such as public works, police or construction. When a DPW [Department of Public Works] superintendent goes to the site, he will find an open forum and blog to exchange ideas with his fellow DPW superintendents."
“We’re going to ask towns to engage in a blanket shared-services agreement to allow them to share staff and equipment. When that DPW superintendent goes on the site," Passanante explains, "he will find a resource list pertinent to his area, so that he can see who has sewer jets or backhoes in other towns, or he might find that Bellmawr has good roadpaving equipment and he can schedule their crews to work on his streets when they’re not busy and pay a reduced rate. Maybe he will trade piping or sewer work if his DPW crew can do that job better and more cheaply than an outside firm. We see askgovfirst.org as a Facebook for government and we’ll give the software to any county that wants to use it. We hope it will be a model statewide."
Winning approval for the sharing of core services, such as police and fire protection, isn’t easy, as Smith will tell municipal officials at a series of forums in Monmouth County on March 23, Middlesex on March 30 and Ocean on March 31.
Smith’s Morris County proposal to save $35 million through police consolidation came under intense attack from police chiefs throughout the county, even though Smith’s core argument was that regionalizing police administration was the best and most cost-efficient way to guarantee that towns could continue to maintain local patrols under intense budget pressures.
“The police chiefs came out and blasted it,” Smith said. “They did so to preserve their jobs, because 90 percent of their jobs would go away under my proposal. That’s simple politics. When you talk to the average person on the street, the overwhelming response is ‘Why didn’t we do this years ago?’ They just see it as another symptom of New Jersey’s costs being out of control.
"We are not special in New Jersey. We have excellent police, and we don’t need 50 percent more of them than anywhere else in the country to do the job," he said.
Smith was referring to statistics showing that New Jersey ranked first with 3.69 sworn police officers per 1,000 residents, well ahead of second–place New York State at 3.18 and third-place Illinois at 2.81, according to a 2009 study by the University of New Hampshire’s Carsay Institute. In the 2000 U.S. Census, New Jersey ranked third with 3.4 sworn police officers per 1,000 residents, behind Louisiana at 3.5 and New York at 3.8.
However, city police departments, in particular, argue that cuts in police staffing translate directly into higher crime rates. Newark’s police unions noted that in the three months since the city laid off 162 police officers, murders jumped 53 percent, burglaries 50 percent, shootings 53 percent and carjackings 320 percent.
Rhetoric will undoubtedly continue to escalate, but what’s more important today than ever, Passanante said, is leadership. “When I was elected mayor of Somerdale 16 years ago, we had two fire companies and 5,200 residents in just 1.2 square miles,” he recalled. “It was a little crazy. When I got elected, I told both fire chiefs and their men I would look at the issue in an open and unbiased way. We did our own internal analysis and came to the conclusion we couldn’t properly sustain two fire departments.
“There had been a tug of war for years over who was getting what, and neither fire company had the complement of equipment it needed to protect the town. I was told it was political suicide, but we went ahead and merged the departments. There were a few bumps, but today we have a healthy, well-equipped fire department that is stronger than the two competing companies were, and the town is better served. It isn’t just about the money, it’s about service."