A traveling duo, spreading the good word across NJ about shared services

Michael Hill, Correspondent | January 28, 2020 | Politics

With the names Platt and Glatt, they sound like a comedy act. But in reality they are former mayors of New Jersey towns who, like preachers, travel the state to spread the gospel of how sharing services can help communities hold down the cost of local government.

Two years ago, Republican Nicolas Platt of Harding and Democrat Jordan Glatt of Summit were tapped by Gov. Phil Murphy to serve as his shared services czars. Since then, they’ve logged thousands of miles in the effort, urging their fellow local leaders to take advantage of $10 million in state grants available for studying how sharing services with other jurisdictions can help hold the fiscal line and then putting agreements in place.

“We would try to be the voice or reason,” Platt said. “Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.”

They are not the first to try, and with home rule a long-established foundation stone of local government in New Jersey, it’s not been an easy sale.

But that’s showing signs of real change, as communities look for ways to save in a state where homeowners pay an average of roughly $9,000 in property taxes each year, among the nation’s highest rates.

Melanie Walter of the state Department of Community Affairs said there were nearly 800 new shared services agreements in New Jersey last year, compared to a range of 300 to 400 new deals in recent years.

“It shows that people are conscious of the need to save money for their taxpayers,” said Walters, who serves as the agency’s director of local government services. “It shows that communities are committed to providing better services in more efficient ways and they are not afraid to talk to each other and seek the support they need to achieve real savings at the community level.”

Beyond the two mayors, there are plenty of voices championing the concept.

Last month, Moody’s Investors Services released a study showing that pooling services has reduced costs for New Jersey’s municipalities and counties, while at the same time maintaining service levels and preserving resources.

“New Jersey local governments will continue to curb expense growth and save money via shared services agreements in an environment of rising costs and declining appetite for raising taxes,’’ Moody’s found.

Platt and Glatt have also tapped their boss to help them make the pitch to local officials. If they need a nudge from the governor, they have found Murphy will make a “very helpful” phone call.

“Don’t underestimate when a mayor says I got a call from the governor and what that really means,” Glatt said.

Murphy touted his administration’s efforts in his State of the State speech earlier this month. But he was even before he took office, he was reaching out to local officials who already had had success sharing operations with neighboring communities, like Robert Conley, the mayor of Madison.

“That trip to the altar starts with sharing a dinner together,” Conley said. “And if we start sharing those dinners, all of a sudden those possibilities are endless.”

Case in point: Madison teamed up with neighboring Chatham to put information technology and both building departments under one roof.

And before that, the two communities joined with Chatham Township and Harding to create a joint municipal court. Each community — there are now five in the consortium — hold court on a separate day.

“You only rent the space for whatever tickets need to be adjudicated,” Platt said. “So, it’s really a win-win and a lot of times the court really doesn’t cost any of these towns anything.”

Woolrich Township in Gloucester County is another shared services success story.

This month, the community’s trash and recyclables pickup was taken over by neighboring Logan Township, an arrangement that is saving Woolrich taxpayers $65,000 a year. In addition, now that Gloucester County has built a salt shed on the township’s public works property, the two governments split the cost of salt.

“So, now we’re getting salt at reduced rate,” said Mayor Vernon Marino. “We can use the salt. The county has a facility in this part of the county where they didn’t before.”

And in October, Woolwich police started patrolling South Harrison, replacing that community’s part-time officers in a move that Marino said cut costs as well as response times.

“We’re trying to look for every savings we can,” he said.

In all, Woolrich and its neighbors have a total of 26 shared services agreements that help to rein in property taxes.

“Our savings on that $2 million … from using other third-party services or other departments, it’s over $200,000 a year,” said Will Pine, chief financial officer for the township. “It’s the best way for us to stay under the statutory caps that we have in the state of New Jersey.”

Walter estimates that shared services agreements cut costs last year by $35 million in New Jersey, in service of the overall goal of at least keeping taxes from rising, if not actually going down.

Schools, police and fire consume the biggest share of local property taxes, and consolidation in those areas is generally recognized as a tougher sell for many communities. But Platt and Glatt say they are getting more interest to share those services after deliberately focusing in others areas first.

“Trust is the huge issue in sharing services,” Glatt said. “Once towns start working together on the smaller stuff, it will start the conversation on the big stuff.”