Local governments are being told that pooling resources with other municipalities is a good way to save money. To encourage them to conserve cash this way, the state yesterday rolled out its online Shared Services Portal, a website loaded with best practices, information on feasibility studies, and a direct link to policy experts in Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration.
The website, the handiwork of the state Department of Community Affairs, is intended to be an easy-to-use tool for local governments, which are under more pressure than ever to control New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes.
Among the materials posted on the site are links to shared-services agreements drafted by the DCA and news about upcoming events where shared services will be a focus, including the New Jersey State League of Municipalities’ convention in Atlantic City later this month. Officials can also use the portal to send messages to two shared-services czars Murphy appointed earlier this year.
But the launching of the site comes as lawmakers who have also been feeling the heat on the property taxes are considering a heavier-handed approach than the one favored by the governor, with forced consolidation of the state’s smallest school districts and municipal courts among the policies put up for discussion.
In all, New Jersey has 565 municipal governments, 21 county governments, and nearly 600 school boards. Local leaders have been working together for decades to pool their resources in a number of areas, including emergency services, garbage removal, and municipal courts.
Despite those efforts, total spending by all municipal and county governments and school boards in New Jersey rose to nearly $29 billion last year, rivaling the overall state budget, which tops $35 billion. A recent tax-policy change at the federal level — capping a longstanding write-off for state and local taxes known as SALT — has also put more pressure on local leaders to keep costs under control, since residents can no longer fully deduct their property tax bills, which averaged $8,690 in 2017.
Making meetings mandatory
While Murphy is trying to generate more shared services on a voluntary basis by providing local leaders with more resources, a task force of fiscal-policy experts assembled by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) recommended several more aggressive policies in a report issued over the summer. They include requiring the consolidation of municipal courts with the lightest caseloads and merging K-9 and smaller school districts. Local officials would also be forced to meet at least twice a year with regional neighbors to discuss areas where shared services could be used to lower spending under another recommendation made by the task force.
Meanwhile, other shared-services advocates in New Jersey have been calling on the Murphy administration to use direct state funding to incent more shared-service agreements. A program that has been launched in neighboring New York provides state dollars for a competitive “municipal consolidation and efficiency” award has been held up as an example of what could be done in New Jersey.
Over the past two decades, only a pair of New Jersey municipal governments have merged — Princeton Borough and Princeton Township in 2013 — and Murphy, a first-term Democrat, is trying to encourage more shared-services agreements among local governments as part of his administration’s broader push to help keep property taxes under control.
Part of that effort involved Murphy’s naming earlier this year former Harding Township Mayor Nicolas Platt and former Summit Mayor Jordan Glatt as his administration’s shared-services czars. By picking Platt, who is a Republican, and Glatt, who is a Democrat, to lead the effort, Murphy said he is seeking to foster a spirit of bipartisanship among the local leaders who are looking for new ways to cooperate. The two former mayors also have extensive experience in the area of shared-services initiatives during their tenures.
Included in the new online portal established by the DCA is a direct link to the shared-services experts via the email address firstname.lastname@example.org. There’s also a link to an online survey that offers an easy way for local leaders to detail and review proposed shared-services projects with the two experts.
The state’s municipal-consolidation laws and a guide to shared-services feasibility studies are also posted on the site, as are links to the League of Municipalities’ extensive shared-services resources and to the shared-services institute at Rutgers University. There are also links tailored to local school-board leaders.
“DCA is committed to working with New Jersey municipalities to find ways to save their taxpayers’ dollars through shared services,” said Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who also serves as commissioner of the agency.