Opinion: A Bold Plan for Local Government Consolidation

Jun H. Choi | October 7, 2010 | Opinion
A single, empowered, bipartisan commission could mean an end to multiple municipal madness

Gov. Chris Christie is nothing if not bold. In just over nine months, his administration has introduced collective bargaining reform — including binding arbitration, pension and healthcare benefit reforms — and has linked teacher evaluations and tenure with student performance.

Whether you agree with him or not, he clearly wins the 2010 Jersey Profile in Courage award for his chutzpah in tackling some of NJ’s most intractable fiscal challenges. And he deserves credit for addressing issues that most modern governors have largely avoided.

So it strikes me as out of character that his proposed policies on how to improve local government efficiency through consolidation and shared services are so timid.

Thus far, NJ’s municipalities have received surveys and, most recently, a Best Practices “checklist” of 88 items to assess and attempt to improve government operations. Has your municipality established an “Absence from Meetings Policy” for elected officials/appointed board members? Did the municipality introduce and adopt its last budget within the filing deadline? Based on the number of “No” responses, a municipality can lose up to 5 percent of its state aid.

While the intentions are good, the reforms don’t really address our state’s system of multiple municipal madness. Taxpayers and our practically bankrupt state demand a bolder approach.

Municipal consolidations have been studied and debated forever. Most recently, the bipartisan LUARCC (Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission) began its work in April 2008. The idea was to create a commission that could operate free of the political pressures that typically affect such policy decisions. Despite early enthusiasm, however, LUARCC has been under-resourced and lacks the robust analytic capacity to meet its objectives. These include determining which level of government is suited to deliver services and recommending to the legislature consolidations of local units if they identify that it would reduce property taxes.

As of yet, LUARCC has issued no recommendations for municipal consolidation or shared services for specific communities.

So, here’s another plan for Christie to consider. It’s action-oriented, and with the right leadership and some luck, it may just work

Modify LUARCC or establish a new bipartisan commission of the most experienced municipal government experts

This commission would be charged with reviewing the detailed operational efficiency (service levels, finances, staffing, facilities, regulatory, technology, and so on) of all 21 counties, 566 municipalities, 186 fire districts and other special districts. It would have 18 months with a budget, staff and adequate public hearings to deliver a set of recommendations to the Governor and legislature on a reorganized service delivery and efficiency plan for all local governments.
The reality is that once artificial political barriers are removed (patronage, contracts, endorsed political factions and the like) the commission can independently and objectively look at the strengths and weaknesses of each local government. This exercise would not be difficult: Experienced public managers in each county already have many good ideas on how their governments can improve services for less costs.

Voters decide whether municipalities should fully consolidate

Voters would still decide whether or not they want to consolidate governing bodies/planning boards and change their identity. But 95 percent or more of the cost pressures come from the delivery of services, and recommendations regarding merging services would be made by the commission.

The commission’s proposals, unlike LUARCC’s, would not go before the voters. Recommendations would address services such as police, fire, public works, utilities, EMS, public health, libraries, social services, municipal courts, tax collection, code enforcement and so forth

It’s important to recognize there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Flexibility is paramount. The details of each government’s service needs, administrative efficiency, staffing and facilities must be considered. It may make sense for Essex, Hudson and Passaic counties to continue to maintain the Newark, Jersey City and Paterson police departments. But smaller suburban police departments could be consolidated under one chief. The 18 dispatch (911) centers in Middlesex County could be consolidated into four or so, while a less populated county would only need one. It may make sense to consolidate all tax collection and information technology departments at the county or regional level.

Review municipal operations on a county-by-county basis

The commission should review operations on a county-by-county basis, where government networks are most familiar and where consensus can be reached more efficiently. Its proposals will inevitably conflict with a full range of current statutes that limit management flexibility when making performance-based decisions. The commission’s recommendations must supersede existing statutes for this effort to be effective.

Propose a reorganized government system that is more transparent, professional and accountable

The commission’s recommendations would go a long way to reducing administrative overhead, implementing a merit-based culture with performance standards and reducing corruption.

Governor and state legislature vote thumbs-up or down

The elected decision-makers should review the commission’s proposals and authorize (or oppose) their implementation. This all-or-nothing approach should increase the likelihood that the entire package of recommendations will be adopted.

Obviously, the integrity of the commission members and the quality of the recommendations will play a major role in the success or failure of this approach. And there are some very thorny issues such as fair tax allocation and whether or not land-use decisions should be regionalized. Nonetheless, this plan would result in significant cost reductions, even after transition expenses are taken into account, especially if Christie’s collective bargaining and benefit reforms are implemented. For certain areas, NJ residents would even see improved service levels such as electronic tax payments.
For many municipalities, the incentives do not currently exist to move toward consolidation or serious shared services. So, while many NJ residents may want consolidated governments to keep their property taxes under control, it is politically infeasible.

It’s time to try a different approach. A bold approach that balances home rule and the need to dramatically improve government efficiency during these tough fiscal times.