Encourage shared services

Encourage shared services
StarLedger Editorial
Monday, April 10, 2006

With money tight in the Statehouse and in town halls across the state, elected officials at all levels of government are looking for ways to economize. An obvious one is to share services.

But let's be realistic: In a state where mayors and town council members consider home rule as distinctly New Jersey as the Turnpike and the Pine Barrens, convincing them to relinquish control over anything won't be easy.

No one suggests that getting a handful of towns to share a library or to combine fire departments will solve the problem of ever-escalating property taxes. Reducing that burden will take a significant restructuring of the state's tax system. But even once that's completed, the savings will be short-lived unless municipal and school leaders institute permanent ways to control expenses. Shared services can do that.

Now lawmakers in Trenton are crafting a package of bills, scheduled for unveiling later this month, to encourage shared services. It's important they keep the incentives significant -- or, conversely, the penalties severe for towns that re fuse to go along with the idea of sharing. Half steps won't get it done.

Some sharing already occurs but not nearly enough, particularly in a state that has 566 towns, 618 school districts, 212 fire districts and 190 authorities. Surprisingly, mayors, school boards and council members, who jealously guard their powers, aren't always at fault for this situation. There are more than 200 state laws dealing with local powers, and some even prevent towns from shar ing services.

Why, for example, shouldn't a town and school district be allowed to have a single payroll office? Why shouldn't mainte nance crews be permitted to repair a boiler in city hall or the high school?

Laws that restrict such activities aren't the only problems. Maybe the most significant hurdle is the fear of many that their hometowns will lose their identities. But economiz ing doesn't have to mean eras ing a sense of place.

Woodbridge covers 23 square miles. About 97,000 residents live in that area. In neighboring Union County, the abut ting towns of Cranford, Gar wood, Mountainside, Springfield, Summit and Westfield spread out over 27 square miles. The combined population of the six towns is around 98,000. Woodbridge's budget is generally at least $20 million less than the combined budgets of the six Union municipalities. Police protection alone costs Woodbridge taxpayers about $3 million less than it does those in the Union County six.

Throughout the state, every community has its own character, and often that's what at tracts homebuyers. The idea of living in a faceless mega township understandably has little appeal to most. Woodbridge is one of those sprawling towns, but it consists of 10 distinct communities -- Avenel, Colonia, Fords, Hopelawn, Iselin, Keasbey, Menlo Park Terrace, Port Reading, Sewaren and Woodbridge proper. None of those has surrendered its individuality.

For years the state has been encouraging municipalities to share services, but so far the in centives have been lacking. Promises of more aid might be the way to go, but with the state caught in a budget crunch, not much is available. A better approach would be harsh financial penalties for towns that refuse to comply.

Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, a Camden Democrat, plans to introduce legislation later this month that would eliminate many of the legal obstacles to towns significantly expanding service sharing programs. Roberts' bills could constitute the first serious step on the long journey to property tax reform.

Edmecka.com comments:  On a local note, in January, 1999, North Bergen, Union City, West New York, Weehawken and Guttenberg with the assistance of the Hudson County Improvement Authority (HCIA) created North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue (NHRFR).   

The FIVE cities combined their fire departments into an award-winning and nationally recognized fire protection unit to improve safety while reducing property taxes in the five participating towns.

With an initial budget of $29 million, and a compliment of about 325 paid firefighters, it is the fifth largest fire agency in the State, and the first in the State of New Jersey to cover multiple towns. Through attrition, reductions in overtime, consolidation of administrative personnel, and other economies, these Hudson County towns created one the safest, most efficient and cost-effective regionalized fire departments in the country ­ saving taxpayers approximately $41 million dollars and substantially increasing protection for residents

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