If it's broke, why not fix it?
Municipalities won’t do it on their own
According to Jon Shure, Deputy Director of the State Fiscal Project at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a national think-tank, there are so many obstacles to consolidation that it’s not surprising that more municipalities haven’t taken steps in that direction.
“There are clearly too many towns and too many school districts in New Jersey,” he said, “but people can’t seem to think in a larger area than four square miles. If it’s ever going to be resolved, it has to be resolved by imposing it from the state level.”
In fact, there have been several past attempts by the state to create stronger incentives to push municipal consolidation, but none of them were successful.
“People just didn’t want to,” said State Senator Robert Gordon. “There are political costs to merging your fire departments or police department. People thought the costs were just too high.”
A federal model
The LUARC Commission was modeled on a federal program, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) Commission, which was instituted in 1989 to close unnecessary military basis. Prior to BRAC, Congress had found it very difficult to close military bases, even when they were no longer useful, because a military base can bring millions of dollars to a district, and politicians that represented such districts often objected.
BRAC circumvented these challenges by creating a list of bases that should be closed and then providing that list to Congress. Congress then had to vote “up or down” — meaning it had to approve the entire list or none of it — which made it easier for individual politicians to close bases in their own districts. To date, the BRAC process has resulted in the closure of nearly 100 bases.
“LUARCC was the same idea,” said Andrew Bruck, research director for Courage to Connect. “Since there are a lot of vested interests in each municipality, you need to insulate politicians from the process.”
LUARCC’s charter (which specifically mentions BRAC as inspiration), empowers the Commission to “study and report on the structure and functions of county and municipal government….and the appropriate allocation of service delivery responsibilities from the standpoint of efficiency.” It is also required to recommend legislative changes at the state level to encourage shared services and consolidation, and then to identify specific municipalities that could benefit from sharing services or consolidating.
LUARCC would then conduct or hire outside contractors to conduct feasibility studies that would demonstrate the particulars of how consolidation would work in specific circumstances, write a detailed consolidation proposal, and submit the proposal to the state legislature. After approval by the state, the proposal would go directly to residents for an up or down vote, a process that eliminates the initial hurdle of requiring local approval even before a study can be conducted.
Home rule and exclusion
According to Adam Gordon, a staff attorney at Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, the attachment to “home rule” can sometimes have another effect: the segregation along economic and racial lines that characterizes much of New Jersey.
“The reality is that in the places where people are talking about it at all, they’re not talking about consolidations that go across racial and economic lines,” he said.
Gordon added that, in some parts of New Jersey, municipal boundaries were designed to segregate people by race and class from the beginning, and today a majority of African-Americans in the state reside in just 16 communities, largely major cities like Newark, Trenton, and Camden.
Matt Lassiter, Associate Professor of History and Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan, added that, historically, the concept of home rule has been intricately connected to the concept of “rational choice” — that is, the idea that if local governments are given more control, individuals will be given more options when deciding where to live.
“The problem with the rational choice argument,” he said, “is that it completely pretends that exclusionary zoning doesn’t exist and that everybody has the same amount of freedom to chose where to live.”
Michan Connor, assistant professor at the University of Texas Arlington’s School of Urban and Public Affairs, said that the suburban composition of much of New Jersey has given rise to an unusually entrenched attachment to home rule.
“Residents of affluent suburbs benefit the most from having political autonomy,” he said. If they were consolidated into cities or towns with lower incomes, he continued, that could effectively redistribute their wealth.
“There is potential for this discussion of consolidation to expand and deepen into why it is that some communities are favored and some are disadvantaged,” Connor said. “I hope that is the route that the discussion goes.”