It's Time for New Thinking
on Shared Services
By Stephen M. Sweeney
Over the past two years, we have tackled many difficult problems that are behind New Jersey’s ever escalating property taxes. Together, we have achieved pension and benefit reforms, a new interest arbitration system and a strict new property tax cap—all critical steps to protect our constituents in this difficult economy. But there is a critical reform we still need to tackle together, and that is shared services.
I know that mayors throughout the state are sharing services in new and innovative ways. I have seen first hand the financial and service-quality benefits of shared services. But we are still letting politics and home rule stand in the way of implementing shared services to the fullest. The taxpayers of New Jersey deserve better.
That is why, last spring, I introduced shared services legislation that would result in taxpayer savings through the elimination of government redundancies. It would do so by creating concrete fiscal consequences for local government entities that refuse to enter into sharing agreements that would save money. In putting together the legislation, I met with numerous local elected officials who provided valuable input.
The legislation would require New Jersey’s Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization, and Consolidation Commission (LUARCC) to study municipalities to determine where taxpayer dollars could be saved through sharing of services. If the study shows that savings can be realized through sharing services for two or more local governments, and the State Treasurer verifies the savings amount, the question of whether to share the service would be put to a public referendum in all municipalities involved. Any municipalities that strike down the public question or refuse to implement the shared service would lose state aid. The state aid cut would equal the amount they would have saved had they shared the service. If one town approves it but another denies it, only the town that denied it would lose aid.
Civil service rules would temporarily be suspended for employees impacted by any shared services that are implemented, including shared arrangements not initiated by LUARCC. This would address a concern raised by local government leaders that civil service rules serve as a barrier to sharing services. The bill also suspends state laws that grant special protection to police brass and local health officers when services are shared.
The taxpayers of New Jersey simply can’t handle their property tax burden anymore. Residents demand greater government efficiency and greater savings. It is well past time we stop just talking and really do something to provide the incentives needed to get us moving in the right direction on shared services. Simply put, if a town can save money through sharing services and decides not to do so, they are going to lose out on state aid. If you do not want more cost-effective government, then the taxpayers of New Jersey should not be footing the bill. I know this concept is tough medicine to swallow. For years we have heard talk about the need to share services, but we haven’t seen enough action. We have tried the carrot approach when we offered state aid to encourage sharing services, but it simply hasn’t done enough.
Let me be clear. Many municipalities and counties already do a phenomenal job of sharing services. They have set an example we could only hope other local governments would follow. But many still refuse to do so. In my own home county, municipalities refused to share county wide EMS
services despite demonstrated savings and reduced response times. This kind of mindset must end.
I realize many mayors will say this is another example of Trenton sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong. I know that sentiment because I ran a local government for over a decade. When I was Freeholder Director in Gloucester County, we achieved $30 million in savings through shared and regionalized services. That included sharing such county wide services as 911 police/fire/EMS dispatching, tax assessors, stormwater management, trash disposal savings, animal control, deer carcass removal and health department inspections. The numerous shared services implemented between the county and its 24 municipalities save an average 18 cents off the tax rate. Gloucester County recently regionalized female inmate services with Camden, Salem and Cumberland counties, saving an additional $1.5 million. These are real savings that have real impacts on your municipal budget and on the taxpayers.
I have also heard concerns that this legislation will unfairly penalize towns and counties that already share services. Not only is that not the intent of what I am proposing, but also it is a highly unlikely outcome. LUARCC’s function is not to target towns that are doing their part to create efficient government. Their purpose is to examine those areas of the state that could be doing more with less. The places that have been reluctant to change for the benefit of their taxpayers are where those efforts will be centered. Communities that have done their part to share services have little to worry about. Moreover, LUARCC is not going to show up and simply demand towns start sharing. They are going to carefully analyze the issue, working with all municipalities involved to gather as much data and make as informed a decision as possible.
Sharing services is about efficiency. It is about making government work better at a cheaper price. Together, we can do this without losing our sense of community. For too long, home rule has dominated our way of thinking and prevented real savings. The times we live in simply don’t allow for that kind of thinking anymore.
Originally published in New Jersey
Municipalities, Volume 89, Number 2, February 2012