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As I See It


'Shotgun Wedding' Provisions Pose A Threat to Home Rule

MAyor Vincent Barrella
By Vincent Barella, Mayor
Point Pleasant Beach Borough

Senate bill, S-2 (and its Assembly counterpart, A-117), do not have a short title associated with them. After reviewing this proposed legislation in its current form, I would suggest the “Death of Home Rule Act of 2012.” The League has expressed its opposition to this legislation.

Wrapped in the populist themes of “shared services” and “civil service reform,” these bills empower an unelected commission to determine how local governmental units will deliver future services to New Jersey’s residents and tax-payers. As such, this legislation represents a classic example of “bait and switch.”

The “bait” is civil service reforms which ostensibly simplify procedures for governmental units to enter in shared services agreements. On its face this is a good thing. It would give local leaders the tools to make government more efficient. The “switch” is the mandatory nature of the commission’s proposals.

Make no mistake, while the proponents of this legislation will claim that voters and their elected officials will have a choice, the financial penalties associated with a failure to comply with the commission’s proposals clearly negate any voter choice. Furthermore, the Office of Legislative Services has concluded that the revenue and cost impact of these bills is indeterminate.

The process is both simple and lethal. Any local unit or county government may request the commission to undertake a study; however, not every affected unit need sign on to the study (although their cooperation with the commission is required). A study may be undertaken even absent a request from a local or county government, since the commission can undertake a study on its own initiative.

A county, for example, could ask that the commission to examine the sharing of police or sanitation services.

Or, the commission could undertake a study to determine whether the sharing of similar services between a large municipality and surrounding smaller towns should be implemented. In the former situation, the county would be the lead unit and the affected municipalities will be subservient to its decisions. In the latter, the large municipality will be the one making the decisions.

Working with the benefit of the cost savings inherent in the suspension of civil service and tenure protections, the commission will develop a shared services proposal. Any proposal will, by definition, be assured of effectuating cost savings because of the proposed reforms. Thus, what is being proposed is not the sharing of services, but the mandatory consolidation of services under a shared services banner.

The commission’s proposal will then be referred to the State Treasurer who will review the accuracy of the commission’s savings analysis. If the Treasurer certifies the accuracy of the analysis, an affected governmental unit can appeal that certification to the Department of Community Affairs, another part of the executive branch of government. If the DCA affirms the certification of the Treasurer, that is the end of the process. There is no provision for judicial review and the commission’s proposal is then transmitted to the Assembly and Senate, not for approval, but instead for disapproval within 30 days.

Thus, cover is provided to local legislative representatives who will not be required to go on record supporting a mandatory shared services proposal, but rather will be able to allow it to proceed by doing nothing.

The commission’s shared services proposal then goes to the voters of the affected governmental units. If the voters approve, local government is left with no choice but to comply. If the voters disapprove, State Aid (no definition as to what constitutes state aid is provided) to their municipality will be reduced by the projected savings associated with the plan. This is not voter choice, but a “shotgun wedding” that strikes at the heart of home rule and which threatens the ability of a local governmental unit to continue to provide vital services. It is unlikely that a levy cap exception will be provided for any reduction in state aid because of a refusal by the voters to embrace a shared services proposal. Effectively, local elected officials will be forced to assume the role of undertaker as they are left to preside over the slow death through starvation of the municipalities they were elected to serve and protect.

Shared services should not be forced down the throats of the residents and taxpayers of New Jersey’s municipalities, many of whom made a conscious decision to live in a particular municipality because of the services provided by that municipality. Instead, the decision to enter into shared services agreements should remain with those most accountable to the electorate—duly elected local officials.

Of course, the proponents of this legislation may argue that if a municipality refuses to implement a shared services proposal, the taxpayers of New Jersey should not be forced to supplement its budget through state aid. There is a certain superficial appeal to this argument. The problem with it is that many of New Jersey’s smaller communities, the backbone of the state, already send to Trenton far more in taxes than is returned to them in the form of state aid.

For example, my town of Point Pleasant Beach sends tens of millions of dollars of sales and income tax revenue to Trenton each year; however, we received back in 2010 and 2011 the total sum of $3,401 in CMPTRA aid. Clearly, any argument for penalizing us for not embracing a shared services proposal crafted by those in Trenton fails in light of the reality of the economic relationship that exists between the small towns and Trenton.

If the objective is to lower property taxes, then the Legislature must immediately begin to reform our broken system and New Jersey’s overreliance on property taxes to fund local services;
S-2 does nothing to further that goal. If, however, the objective is to eliminate half of New Jersey’s municipalities and do away with home rule, the taxpayer penalty provision is certainly a significant step in that direction.

 

Originally published in New Jersey Municipalities, Volume 89, Number 2, February 2012

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