Stop the Madness

It’s time to pass legislation that will promote action on shared services.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

It’s been 14 years since the last consolidation of municipalities took place in New Jersey. That was in 1997, when Pahaquarry Township (population seven) merged with Hardwick Township in Warren County.

In fact, it’s been more than 20 years since the late Assembly Speaker Alan Karcher called for consolidation in his classic book, New Jersey’s Multiple Municipal Madness. Yet, no matter how high our property taxes go, New Jersey clings to the costly notion of home rule.  Not only do we have 567 municipalities, we have more than 1,500 local government entities. Some school districts are so small that they don’t have a high school or middle school, and barely have an elementary school. Madness. 

Close to me in Essex County, we have lots of Oranges—South Orange, West Orange, East Orange, and of course, Orange. In Mercer County, there is Prince-ton Township, which is not to be confused with Princeton Borough or Princeton Junction. (Actually, I think the latter is just a train station, but it could have its own mayor. Who knows?) 

It’s clear that forcing towns to consolidate or merge, which I have long advocated, is not going to happen. People are not going to give up their town hall, their town colors or their town high school. We want our own police chief and fire department. But the expense of all these layers of administration add up—and it is one of the biggest reasons why New Jersey’s property taxes are still the highest in the nation.

Since we can’t force towns to merge, we should force them to save by sharing more services. That’s what Senate president Stephen Sweeney has proposed in recent legislation that would give a state commission the power to take away state aid from any school district, municipality or government entity that says “absolutely not” to a shared services agreement. The commission, the Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission or LUARCC (rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?), would recommend which towns should share services and how much money would be saved. 

Under the bill, local voters would be able to reject any shared-services plan, and towns would be given 14 months to comply, but if in the end they opted not to share, they would potentially lose state aid. That would likely send their property taxes even higher.

“I honestly believe everything can be shared,” says Sweeney, “and we not only need to look town to town but county to county and regionally, rather than being so narrow-minded and into your own backyard.” 
Asked why his legislation does not call for the mandatory consolidation of municipalities and school districts, Sweeney says, “I don’t think I’ll see that in my lifetime.” 

In other words, if you can’t get the whole pie, you might as well get a piece of it. I can’t imagine any reasonable or right-thinking government or community leader being against Sweeney’s effort. (Funny, the Tea Party has been silent on this topic.) We’ve been protesting high property taxes for decades in our state. We like to call it “property tax reform,” but that’s a crock. The best we’ve done is to have some people get a rebate check from the state or a tax credit. But that’s not property tax reform, that’s a property tax Band-Aid. 

Short of mandated consolidation, the best we can do is a plan like Sweeney’s. It will save money—and might actually bring us closer together in our balkanized state. We need quick movement on Senator Sweeney’s legislation. I am hopeful Governor Chris Christie will support it; he was calling for such action even before he became governor. 

Once the legislation is in place, it will fall to local leaders to work together on shared-services agreements. But, if voters reject such deals, they’d better not show up at the Statehouse yelling that their taxes are too high.

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