Spending caps, rising property tax appeals, and a sluggish economy are spurring elected officials to push for police department consolidation, school district regionalization, and other shared services in a movement that promises to reshape the way government services are provided in New Jersey.
"The idea of merging police forces or school districts used to be the third rail of politics,” said Hunterdon County Freeholder Rob Walton. “That’s no longer true. It's now part of the everyday discourse on how we govern ourselves as counties, municipalities, and school districts. It's a big step forward.”
Hunterdon County is now debating a groundbreaking proposal to merge the county’s 30 school districts -- and their 30 school superintendents, administrative staffs, and school boards -- into a single countywide district, with potential tax savings in the tens of millions of dollars for Hunterdon’s 128,349 residents.
Such a consolidation would be unprecedented for New Jersey school districts, but New Jersey Future, the nonprofit research group, noted that the Central Bucks School District -- located in the Pennsylvania county across the Delaware River from Hunterdon -- has one superintendent directing 15 elementary schools, five middle schools, and three high schools serving nine municipalities with a population of 114,548.
The landmark countywide school consolidation proposal by the Hunterdon County Shared Services Task Force is just the latest in a series of initiatives that are sweeping the state, with Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) providing high-level, bipartisan political support:
The Camden County Board of Freeholders is fast tracking a plan to consolidate all of the county’s police departments into a single force -- an initiative that Christie and Sweeney publicly endorsed last March.
Somerset County’s police consolidation working group, after two years of study and consultation, will release its final report within the next few weeks recommending the consolidation of Somerset’s 19 municipal police departments into five regional police forces.
Sixteen Bergen County municipalities are considering plans to merge their police departments with neighboring towns under grants provided by the Bergen County Prosecutors’ Office last summer.
Princeton Borough and Princeton Township voted in a referendum last November to merge the two municipalities -- the first real municipal merger in New Jersey since 1953.
What is striking about these unprecedented and ambitious initiatives is that they are being pushed by Republican and Democratic officials in urban, suburban, and rural counties throughout the state, and “home rule” has taken a back seat in the discussion to questions of cost savings, quality of service, and staffing levels.
"Everything is on the table," said Bill Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. "There has been more real interest in shared services in the last few years than in the previous 35 years combined."
Interlocal service-sharing agreements date back to 1973, but while municipalities have added more and more shared service pacts over the years, most were contracts with other towns for non-core services such as animal control officers or building inspectors. The most recent recession that struck New Jersey from 2007 to 2009 changed all that.
"Quite frankly, towns are doing everything they can to reduce the bottom line,” Dressel said. “Every town is. They're reevaluating interlocal service agreements to see if they can add additional communities or cooperate with counties or school boards, and they're breaking down a lot of the barriers that used to exist. Towns are talking to school boards, school boards to counties.”
The biggest change, Dressel said, “is that more towns are now directing their attention to emergency services -- to police, fire, first aid and police dispatching -- and they're getting more cooperation from their police and fire unions than previously because in many cases they're still talking about retaining jobs."
Dressel and Walton agreed that fiscal and economic pressures are driving elected officials to consider police or school consolidation initiatives that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
The 2 percent cap on municipal, county and school district spending increases enacted by Christie and Democratic legislative leaders last summer, coupled with miniscule state school aid increases and years of reduced state aid to municipalities and counties, is forcing local officials to find significant cost savings in an effort to maintain current levels of service.
Further, the decline in real estate values has fueled a wave of property tax appeals, particularly by more affluent homeowners, and pending foreclosures and job losses by residents have reduced tax collection rates. New Jersey’s sluggish economic recovery means that towns cannot count on new residential, commercial, and office construction to boost property tax revenues.
Walton also cited longtime cultural shifts. “We are a more mobile society and not as wedded to our school district or municipality as we were in the past. We live in an era of Facebook and Twitter, and we socialize with friends across the country, not just locally.” Walton said, offering an explanation for why the outcry over home rule has been relatively muted.
He added that citizens are beginning to recognize that “New Jersey is an outlier in regard to the number of municipalities and school districts we have,” and that having 566 municipal governments and about 600 school districts “might not be the most efficient way to govern ourselves at the local level.”
In fact, Farleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll found that 76 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats in New Jersey agreed that it is “a good idea” to share such core services as police, fire and school administration in order to save money.
“It used to be that shared services were a good idea for someone else’s town,” Professor Peter Woolley, the FDU poll director, said in releasing the poll last April. “Now, voters are suggesting that it’s a good idea for their town too.”
The question on the state level is whether a “carrot-or-stick” approach is the best way to encourage major cost savings through shared services and consolidation initiatives.
Christie declared two weeks ago that an increased emphasis on shared services is the key to reducing property taxes, and said he is working with Sweeney on legislation to drive property tax savings.
Sweeney sounded the same note as Christie in declaring that shared services would be one of his three major initiatives for the upcoming legislative session, and by reintroducing a shared services bill that carries a big stick.
Under the Sweeney bill, New Jersey’s Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commissions, which are set up at the county level, would study county, municipal and school budgets to determine whether tax dollars could be saved through consolidation of services.
Where cost savings are identified, voters in the affected municipalities would be asked to approve the shared services or consolidations recommended. Any town whose voters failed to pass the recommended shared service proposals would lose state aid in an amount equivalent to the projected cost savings.
“We tried the nice way of giving you money and people wouldn’t take it,” Sweeney said in a December press conference. “My approach quite honestly is the stick approach. If you don’t share, we’re going to reduce your state aid. Then for the people in the local community, there’s no state involvement, there’s no state money. They want more expensive government? They got it.”
The New Jersey State League of Municipalities applauded the provisions of the Sweeney bill that limited seniority, tenure, pension, layoff, and reemployment rights under both existing law and under the Civil Service system for employees affected by shared services agreements. But the league remains adamantly opposed to Sweeney’s proposal to strip recalcitrant towns of state aid, Dressel said.
“It cannot be argued that taxpaying voters who democratically reject an option offered them by an agency of the State bureaucracy should, therefore, forfeit their right to property tax relief funding,” Dressel wrote in a December letter to legislators.
Walton said his pitch to local officials and citizens is that it is important for Hunterdon County to take the time to consider all of its options now “because I fear if we don’t, the state is going to come in and tell us how to do it. Or we’re going to reach a tipping point where the situation is so bad that we have to make severe cuts rather than having the ability to take a phased-in approach” that cushions the impact on employees, he said.
It was Raritan Township Mayor John King who originally suggested the idea of consolidating Hunterdon County’s 24 local school districts and five regional high school districts into a single countywide district, and backed it up with a formal resolution from the Raritan Township Committee asking the Hunterdon County Shared Services Working Group to study the idea.
King noted that school costs account for up to 70 percent of the property tax bill in Hunterdon County -- and Hunterdon County’s $8,216 average residential property tax bill was the highest in the nation over the five-year period from 2005 to 2009, according to the most recent statistics from the nonprofit Taxpayer Foundation.
Walton’s group found that Hunterdon County schools spent $397 million in 2010, and that high-performing county-run school districts in states like Maryland and Georgia spent more than 25 percent less, even after adjusting for cost-of-living differences between the states. To Walton and King, this suggested potential school consolidation savings in the tens of millions of dollars for Hunterdon County residents.
“We’re in the early stages of debating the countywide school district concept,” said Walton, noting that he and King put forward the formal proposal at the end of January. “Some people are against it, the preponderance of people think it’s about time and long overdue, and some think it’s too much, too soon.”
Any countywide school consolidation would require the apportioning of taxes on an equalized basis, potentially resulting in tax cuts for about half of Hunterdon’s 26 municipalities, but tax increases for the others if the projected savings are not as large as expected.
But what is most significant to Walton is that the idea of regionalizing school districts suddenly has widespread support. The South Hunterdon Regional High School District released a feasibility study last Wednesday showing the cost savings that would accrue if the Lambertville, Stockton, and West Amwell elementary school districts that send their children to the high school consolidated with South Hunterdon Regional in a single K-12 district.
School and elected officials that send students to Hunterdon’s other four high schools, Hunterdon Central, Delaware Valley, North Hunterdon, and Voorhees, also have begun discussing similar regionalization studies. Walton noted that there are good policy arguments for consolidation and regionalization, including better coordination of curriculum, the ability to set up more magnet schools, better integration of the vocational-technical high school with the regional high schools, and equalizing the educational resources provided to students throughout the county.
“Certainly, in my opinion, K-12 regionalization is where we’re headed, and it’s not a question of if, but when,” Walton asserted.
The creation of K-12 regional high school districts in Hunterdon County would not be as aggressive a consolidation as the single countywide district that he and King have suggested, but it would represent a major consolidation.
It would also mirror the experience of the Somerset County police department consolidation study, which started out as a plan to consolidate all Somerset County police departments into a single force, but has evolved into a plan to create five regional police forces that combine municipalities that already share other services -- and often send their children to the same regional school district.
Somerset County Prosecutor Geoffrey Soriano, who chairs the consolidation task force, set a March deadline for release of the final report. It is uncertain how much the projected $17.8 million in annual savings for Somerset’s 19 municipalities would be reduced by creating five regional police forces, but the revisions have increased buy-in among both municipal officials and police departments.
The Somerset proposal has already had an impact in neighboring counties.
Walton’s working group has begun working with the Hunterdon County prosecutor on a similar study to analyze potential savings from the creation of a countywide department or regionalized police forces.
Similarly, Plainfield Councilman Adrian Mapp last summer urged the Union County prosecutor to appoint a similar task force to study the cost savings and service impact of consolidating Union County’s 21 police departments and county police into a single department with four regional precincts.
Somerset County currently appears to have stronger buy-in at the local level than Camden County, where Freeholder Director Lou Cappelli Jr., one of the leading proponents of the countywide police consolidation, is trying to move forward despite opposition from both the Camden County Police Chiefs Association and the Fraternal Order of Police. The FOP recently began pushing for a countywide referendum on any police department consolidation proposal.
Speaking to a New Jersey Association of Counties summit on police consolidation in December, Cappelli conceded that significant fiscal and labor issues remained to be solved, but expressed confidence that the consolidation eventually would move forward.