New Jersey bill nudging towns to share services could help shrink property taxes | Editorial

jlegis8-07112017-0001
Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) speaks to the press.

New Jersey is getting closer to putting down the carrot and rightly picking up the stick to force its hundreds of municipalities to shrink government costs and ultimately cut, or at least slow, the growth of property taxes.

For several years, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) has pushed a shared-services bill, which would fine towns a share of their state aid if they don’t go along with cost-cutting measures. Previous bills have stalled in the Assembly, but the lower house has new leadership now and Sweeney has a good chance to pass his legislation.

Gov. Murphy also seems interested in stopping the expensive duplication of services, and has talked about having a “shared services czar” who could prod towns to become leaner.

Sweeney’s bill would fund the Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization, and Consolidation Commission, which hopefully isn’t as cumbersome as its title. It would study the ways towns could merge services such as purchasing, trash pickup, and police and fire service, and figure out how much money would be saved.

Any towns that don’t want to become more efficient and rely less on taxing property owners would be free to lose an amount of state aid equal to what they would have saved had they merged services. The bill also would make it easier for towns to terminate employees who aren’t needed when services are merged.

Directly in the crosshairs of Sweeney’s bill are the about 210 of the state’s 565 municipalities that haven’t even tried to share services. That’s exactly where they belong.

The tough stance makes a lot of sense. Too many New Jersey politicians give lip service to sharing services, but haven’t done much to force it. That’s because shared services run against the political culture of New Jersey’s hundreds of towns, where the most active voters have municipal jobs – or have friends and relatives who do. Their sympathizers have been effective in shutting down efforts to streamline government.

For example, although the consolidation commission was created in 2007, it was never funded. In  many ways, letting the enforcer gather dust for more than a decade is emblematic of the state political class’ twisted messages about shared services. It sounds good to voters who aren’t connected to a government job in some way, and awful to people who work inside a municipal building.

More awful is that taxpayers finance 565 governments; from Newark, with a population of 277,000, to tiny Walpack Township in Sussex County, with fewer than 20 residents.

It’s not as though New Jersey is some sprawling state with huge mountains and wide rivers isolating towns so much that each one needs its own police force and public works department. It is the most densely populated state in the nation. Towns seamlessly abut one another, making them perfect for shared services.

Sweeney’s bill is so long overdue that the Assembly and Murphy would be well advised to push it along before New Jersey voters open up their next tax bills. When they’re done with shared services, state leaders should start consolidating the state’s more than 600 school districts.