who embrace simple solutions. Yet, the simple solution is
exactly what some op-ed writers, business advocates and
legislators are now embracing. They say that the property
tax problem is simply solved by attacking home rule. Consolidation
saves money, they argue. Businesses have successfully merged
entities, saved money and continued quality service. Why
can't government do the same? Remove home rule, they say,
force towns to consolidate and, the savings will result.
This is a compelling but superficial argument.
must change the way they do business, they say.
Well, it would
be much easier for local governments to do this if the State
upheld its end of bargain, and maintained aid to municipalities,
at the very least, to the rate of inflation. State government
relies on the sales and income taxes, which automatically
adjust to inflation. The private sector has the option of
increasing its prices. Local governments are forced to rely
on the regressive property tax to support services to residents.
And, it would
be easier to change the way local governments do business
if labor costs did not drive up local budgets every year.
In the private sector, businesses have the option to negotiate
changes with their workforce. In the public sector, there
is significantly less flexibility to do so, and we must
rely on an arbitration system that is weighted heavily in
favor of public sector unions.
saves money, they proclaim.
We agree that
regionalization and service sharing present excellent opportunities
for local savings. That is why so many municipalities have
been involved for so long in so many such arrangements.
Unfortunately, there are many impediments for larger scale
sharing of services, such as the labor contracts and civil
service requirements that make the sharing of big-ticket
items inefficient and ineffective. For instance, under current
law if two municipalities wanted to merge their public works
departments and one is a civil service municipality and
one is not, the one that is not must guide its workers into
and through the civil service system. In these circumstances,
consolidation would not save money. While sharing of services
may reduce costs, the blanket statement that consolidation
of services always saves money is plainly false.
we have seen is that interlocal services may generate modest
savings. For instance, a 2003 report from Rutgers, the State
University found that reducing the number of school districts
in the State in half (a tall order to begin with) would
result in a $365 million savings after 4 years. This is
a good savings no doubt, but a drop in the bucket in the
big picture, and would barely make a dent in the property
tax crisis in which we find ourselves.
how will the quality of services be impacted? We recognize
that the efficiency of service delivery must be continually
improved. But how will the effective delivery of these services
to our residents be impacted? That's more difficult to quantify.
is a myth. It doesn't really exist. There's no constitutional
or statutory basis for home rule in New Jersey, they assert.
This is not true.
Article IV, Section VII (11) of the State Constitution and
the Home Rule Act of 1917 (NJSA 40-42 et seq.) provide for
reasonably strong Constitutional and statutory foundations
for home rule in New Jersey.
of home rule are just zealously protecting their own fiefdoms,
What some call fiefdoms are democratically elected governments.
Home rule is self-determination: locally elected officials
are held directly accountable by voters. Those who resist
sharing of services must defend that to their neighbors
who voted them into office. And procedures, albeit difficult
ones, to consolidate municipalities are already on the books,
subject to the approval of voters. The State Legislature
would do us all a disfavor by substituting their judgments
for those of the citizens of the State. Diminishing home
rule disenfranchises voters.
Of course, the
State Legislature has failed to enact a citizens' convention,
refusing to allow the public to have its chance against
the property tax monster. Now some want to further erode
voter participation by reducing local control.
So, let us
present an alternate theory: the property tax crisis we
find ourselves in has little to do with home rule.
State Legislature should focus on the burdens and mandates
it imposes on local governments. For instance, as Governor
Corzine rightly noted in his address to the Legislature,
state aid to municipalities has been flat for 5 years. This
failure to even keep up with the rate of inflation has burdened
Labor costs continue
to strap local budgets. For instance, in its recent series,
"Runaway Pay," the Bergen Record rightly called
public employee compensation "the biggest reason for
our fiscal woes." The Record's focus on teachers and
public safety officers sheds light on the major problem
facing local elected officials and the property taxpaying
citizens that they have sworn to serve.
On Monday, July 31, local officials were informed by the
Division of Pensions that 2007 property tax contributions
to PERS and PFRS will total $650 million. That will mean
$267 million in new spending, over which local officials
will exercise no control, next calendar year.
We support shared
services. And if two or more municipalities want to voluntarily
consolidate, we'll do everything we can to make it work.
In fact, it's part of the League's mission to make such
efforts work well. Home rule is not an impediment to these
efforts. It just assures that the final arbitrator is the
voter. We trust the voters and the local officials to act
on their behalf and we don't presume to substitute our judgment
for theirs. Instead, it's time for the Legislature to recognize
all of the complex factors that have contributed to this
crisis - including its own actions and omissions. And it's
long past time for progress towards a comprehensive solution.
William G. Dressel, Jr.
New Jersey State League of Municipalities