Sweeney Swings ‘Big Stick’ to Push Towns to Share Services or Lose State Aid
- Credit: Ed Murray/Star Ledger
To Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), nothing underscores the need for the state to take a tough approach to shared services to cut property taxes more than what happened in his home county when Wenonah looked into consolidating police services with neighboring Mantua.
“Wenonah has the highest property taxes in Gloucester County, and residents would have saved $400 a year in property taxes,” Sweeney noted at a recent New Jersey Conference of Mayors seminar in Atlantic City. Furthermore, the police chief and sergeant in Wenonah’s seven-member police department were about to retire, so merging with Mantua’s 29-member force should have been easy.
But as soon as Democratic Mayor Tommy Lombardo and Councilman John Howard started pushing the issue, “signs started popping up over town saying ‘Save Our Police Department,’ and the Republicans turned it into a campaign issue,” Sweeney said.
Residents gathered 500 signatures to put a referendum on the ballot, and in November, more than 62 percent of Wenonah residents voted “no” on the merger question, and elected two anti-merger Republicans to the Wenonah Borough Council, effectively putting an end to consideration of the question for at least the next year.
“When Wenonah voted not to consider merging police departments, its residents were saying, ‘We don’t care about saving money.’ So why shouldn’t we cut state aid to municipalities that don’t care enough to lower their own property taxes when they have the opportunity to do so?” Sweeney demanded. “We’ve tried the carrot. We need to try the stick.”
For the second year in a row, Sweeney is pushing a controversial shared services bill that would empower New Jersey’s Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission (LUARCC) to determine objectively where municipalities could save money by sharing services. Cost-saving options would be put for a public referendum, and if the voters refuse -- as Wenonah’s residents did -- their town would lose state aid equivalent to what the property tax cost savings would have been.
Sweeney’s bill, S-2, is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, and the Senate president said he is optimistic that he can get the bill through the legislature this year.
William G. Dressel Jr., executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, likes the carrots in Sweeney’s shared services bill -- including dropping Civil Services mandates and leaving existing union contracts in place until new contracts are negotiated for the merged department -- but he and other mayors are adamantly opposed to Sweeney’s “big stick.”
“Voters should hold elected officials accountable; not the other way around,” Dressel insisted in a letter to the state’s 566 mayors. “We must oppose any proposal which would, on the one hand, allow the voters to express their will; but, on the other hand, inform those voters that they will be punished, if their will does not comport with that of a majority of the appointed members of the LUARCC.”
Sweeney’s bill is working its way through the Legislature as a new wave of plans to save property tax dollars through police consolidation is being debated throughout the state:
- Somerset County towns have until August to decide whether to participate in a plan to merge 19 municipal police departments into one countywide police department with five regional precincts -- a plan that would actually increase total police staffing by 14 patrolmen to 606, while saving $44 million over the next decade.
- Camden city officials were in state Superior Court this week fighting a drive by the Fraternal Order of Police to force a binding referendum on the ballot in November to block the planned merger of Camden County’s municipal police departments into a single countywide department -- a measure that Sweeney and Republican Gov. Chris Christie have both supported.
- And in Bergen County, where 15 municipalities are studying potential police mergers under a grant from the county prosecutor, the Demarest Council on Tuesday agreed reluctantly to citizens’ demands that they hold a non-binding referendum on plans to merge the Demarest Police Department into the Bergen County Police Department before the council votes on any final merger plan.
Sweeney, who championed shared services while director of the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders from 1997 to 2010, says he has seen too many courageous municipal officials pilloried over the years for having the courage to take on home rule.
“When you have the courage to do the right thing, you shouldn’t be punished,” Sweeney told a roomful of mayors attending the New Jersey Conference of Mayors convention on April 27. “We want to help you by taking the local politics out of it.”
To Sweeney, taking the local politics out of the issue is justifiable because high property taxes are not just a local issue, but a state issue. New Jersey’s average $7,500 property tax bill, Sweeney argues, is what makes the state non-competitive, and while the 2 percent cap law he sponsored will hold down future property tax increases, it will also force municipalities to cut services if they’re not diligent in finding cost savings.
It’s too important an issue to the future economic prosperity and survival of the state to allow cost-saving plans to become snarled in emotional appeals to home rule and special interests, Sweeney argues.
“When I was on the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders, we took over EMS [Emergency Medical Services],” Sweeney noted. “The average response time was 15 minutes, we had it down to 5:53, and the national average was eight minutes. But we still had two towns that didn’t want to join. When towns refuse to cooperate when the service is free and the service is better, what are you going to do? That’s why we need legislation that changes the system by putting in a penalty -- a loss of state aid -- for towns that refuse to help themselves.”
However, Point Pleasant Beach Mayor Vincent Barrella expressed fear that the Sweeney shared services bill, coupled with the 2 percent cap on municipal spending, was really aimed at forcing municipal consolidation with the ultimate goal of squeezing New Jersey’s 566 municipalities into 250 or less. He also spoke for many mayors when he criticized Sweeney’s bill as an effort to take away the rights of citizens to decide what type of government and services they want in their own towns.
“The citizens of my town moved to Point Pleasant Beach, not Point Pleasant, because that’s where they wanted to live,” Barrella said passionately. “They like seeing ‘Point Pleasant Beach’ on their police cars. When taxpayers say no, they shouldn’t be punished for it.
“If you’re going to take state aid away, at least make it a cap exception,” he said, which would give voters the option of raising property taxes to make up for the state aid cut in order to avoid cutting services further. “My residents are willing to say, ‘We’ll pay for it.’”
Sweeney insisted that his bill is not designed to force municipal consolidation, but he questioned Barrella’s perception of what his residents wanted.
“I can see that you want to keep things as they are in Point Pleasant Beach, but I guarantee you that if you walk down the street in Point Pleasant Beach and ask the residents there what the number one problem is, they’re going to say that it’s property taxes,” Sweeney said. “We have too much government. We don’t need 24 police chiefs in 24 towns. If we do not change -- and home rule is totally alive in this state -- we’re in trouble. Good government is good politics. Just because a couple hundred people yell at you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the right thing.”
Sweeney, who was yelled at by thousands when he pushed through controversial legislation requiring public employee union members to pay more toward their pensions and health benefits, does not have a lot of legislative support lined up on his shared services bill.
His Senate cosponsors are both Republicans: Senator Joseph M. Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), who is running as the GOP candidate for U.S. senator against Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), and Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex), one of the ranking Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee. In the Assembly, the primary sponsors are a pair of Camden County Democrats, Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt and Paul Moriarty, with Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), the ranking Republican on the Assembly Budget Committee, and Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Hudson) as the only cosponsors.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), whose committee will be the next to consider the bill, expressed concern about the state aid penalty provision when Sweeney managed to push the bill through the Senate Urban and Community Affairs Committee on February 27.
“Once again, you have Sweeney out there with a controversial bill that he’s going to need Republican support to pass,” said one veteran legislative observer who asked not to be identified. “He may get it through the Senate, but my guess is that the unions are going to kill it in the Assembly.”
Several of the carrots that the League of Municipalities likes in the Sweeney bill are poison to the public employee unions. One would eliminate Civil Service restrictions for both municipalities if a Civil Service municipality merges police departments, for example, with a non-Civil Service town. Another wipes out the provision requiring two merged departments to pay the higher union contract in place to members of both departments; instead, members of the two departments would continue to operate under the old contract until a new contract for the merged department is negotiated. A third undercuts police seniority protections in a merged department.
In fact, the League of Municipalities supports almost all of the provisions in Sweeney’s bill except the state aid penalty, but that is an insurmountable obstacle for mayors to swallow, said Mount Arlington Mayor Art Ondish, the league’s president.
“It cannot be argued that taxpaying voters who democratically reject an option offered them by a bureaucratic state agency thereby forfeit the right of property tax relief funding,” Ondish told the Senate Urban and Community Affairs Committee. “As taxpaying citizens of the State of New Jersey, they must be allowed the unencumbered right to determine the future government of their communities.”
“That’s fine to say, but the question is, ‘Can we afford the government we have?’ How can we not afford to do shared services where it makes financial sense,” Sweeney said.
Mark J. Magyar is an editor-at-large for NJ Spotlight.