|Now is the Time
By Charles A. Richman
Acting Commissioner, Department
New Jersey state government has long taken up the challenge of high property taxes by supporting efforts to consolidate municipalities and encourage sharing of services. The two most recent efforts came from the Special Legislative Session that passed laws in 2007 aimed at creating new opportunities and programs to promote these approaches to controlling municipal property taxes. These opportunities include the Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission (LUARCC) and an enhanced shared services grant program.
Shared Services and Consolidations LUARCC is now focusing on specific municipalities across the state that appear to be good candidates for merged services and possibly even full consolidation. Out of the approximately 75 municipalities in 35 groupings that fit this description, LUARCC subcommittees have identified six clusters of two to three municipalities that merit closer investigation. The clusters are spread out around New Jersey with roughly two apiece located in the northern, central and southern parts of the state.
A substantial amount of time has been spent by LUARCC gathering and analyzing information on New Jersey municipalities. This data includes fiscal, operational, geographic and demographic items and has provided the Commission with a capacity to begin the process of conducting fair and equitable reviews of municipal circumstances.
LUARCC, which is an affiliate of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA), is working with the Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University, Camden to develop a process for studying the clusters. The Walter Rand Institute is reviewing and documenting the work LUARCC has done in preparation for the first round of studies and will offer recommendations for improving future rounds. Its staff will also participate in the actual study. Additionally, experienced experts in such areas as public safety, finance, administration and public works that are contracted through the Walter Rand Institute and approved by LUARCC will collaborate on the project and serve as primary contacts with local municipal officials.
Data will be collected and analyzed in the first phase of the investigation. In the second phase, LUARCC will use the analyzed data to develop a comprehensive set of criteria to evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of existing local government services and if municipalities are better served consolidating all or some of their services.
LUARCC understands that while some municipalities will welcome the criteria as a valuable assessment tool, other towns may not be as receptive. LUARCC expects part of the data analysis will reveal areas where state laws can be strengthened to better encourage shared services and consolidation among municipalities that stand to benefit from such actions.
The data collection and analysis phase is anticipated to take seven months and be followed by a period during which implementation efforts will be followed closely. Nonetheless, LUARCC anticipates it will be able to provide a progress report during its scheduled session at the New Jersey State League of Municipalities Conference on November 18.
Share Grants As LUARCC moves forward with its mandate, the DCA’s Sharing Available Resources Efficiently (SHARE) Grant Program continues to help local governments explore and establish shared services. Between the program’s inception in 2005 and September of this year, SHARE has awarded 184 grants totaling more than $11 million. The program’s success demonstrates that interest in shared services is growing as municipalities seek to maximize use of available resources.
SHARE offers three assistance options: Implementation Assistance, Feasibility Studies and COUNT Grants, which provide funding to support a county-level shared services coordinator. The coordinators help local officials identify potential shared services and bring them through planning to implementation. Seventeen counties have received COUNT Grants under the SHARE Program.
SHARE grants have been used to study or implement a myriad of shared services projects. The list includes, but is by no means limited to, police dispatch, solid waste collection, emergency medical services, public works facilities, flood mitigation, information technology, public libraries, and animal control activities. There has been a substantial increase in interest for sharing municipal court facilities, which is due in part to the strengthened security guidelines issued by the State Administrative Office of the Courts for these facilities. More and more towns think it makes sense to use the facilities of larger municipal courts that are compliant with the security measures, which can be costly to install.
Similarly, interest is rising in shared police services, much of it spurred by the possible loss of free State Police coverage in smaller municipalities. SHARE has approved about 20 grants for Feasibility Studies to investigate possible shared or joint police services, as well as several grants for Implementation Assistance to get shared police services up and running. In June, Woolwich Township in Gloucester County began providing round-the-clock police services to neighboring Swedesboro and in July, Washington Borough and Washington Township in Warren County merged their police departments.
Municipalities considering full consolidation can also take advantage of the SHARE program. SHARE grants can be used to pay for consolidation study costs and Governor Corzine’s special Consolidation Fund is intended to provide funding to assist with implementing municipal consolidation and helping resolve cost issues that might otherwise make a consolidation not economically feasible.
DCA Assistance Additionally, the DCA provides technical assistance to municipalities thinking about consolidation. The most recent municipal consolidation in New Jersey occurred in 1997 when Pahaquarry Township merged with Hardwick Township in Warren County. But in the last couple of years interest in possible consolidation has shown a marked increase.
For example, the Joint Sussex Borough-Wantage Township Municipal Consolidation Study Commission has voted to recommend consolidation and the question will be placed on the ballot this coming November for voters to decide if the communities should merge. Other consolidation studies are underway between Chester Borough and Chester Township in Morris County, as well as Upper Township in Cape May County and Corbin City in Atlantic County. While consolidation normally requires majority approval in the referendum in each town, a solid study process can lead to an informed citizenry making sound, long-term decisions.
Both LUARCC and the DCA strive to work collaboratively with municipalities when it comes to shared services and consolidation with the understanding that every situation is unique and needs to be approached with careful consideration. While there are great opportunities for streamlining local government, solutions need to be crafted that are sensitive to local conditions.
To learn more about LUARCC, log on to www.nj.gov/dca/affiliates/luarcc/ on the DCA’s website. More information about the SHARE Grant Program can be found at www.state.nj.us/dca/lgs/share, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (609) 292-7842.
This article was originally published in New Jersey Municipalities magazine. Vol. 86, No. 8, November 2009