If it's broke, why not fix it?
In an email message, Roberts said that along with raising property taxes or cutting services, consolidation is a “third option” for municipalities to balance their budgets, and that part of the justification of the Governor’s two-percent cap on property taxes was to “force some of these decisions concerning municipal consolidation and/or shared services” in a manner he described as being “from the bottom up.” But Roberts did not respond to a question asking whether it was Christie’s view that municipalities should look first to potential efficiencies that could be achieved via consolidations before either raising property taxes beyond the cap or cutting services.
And, according to Chuck Chiarello, Mayor of Buena Vista Township and current president of the League of Municipalities, the effect of defunding the commission is that, relative to increasing property taxes or cutting services, consolidation has become a less visible alternative to small municipalities.
Roberts cited the “tool-kit” being promoted by Christie — including arbitration caps and changes to civil service law designed to reduce municipal labor costs — as another alternative to raising taxes or cutting services.
Roberts did not explain, however, why promoting the tool-kit and empowering LUARCC were mutually exclusive goals, and likewise did not explain why, in the context of facing the stick of tax increases or service cuts, a funded and functional LUARCC process wouldn’t appeal to beleaguered municipalities as a welcome carrot.
In any case, the tool-kit might be beside the point, according to Genovese: “Those [tool-kit] reforms might save municipalities some money,” Genovese acknowledged, “but if at the end of it, you still have this system, it’s still not going to hold up in the long-term. You’re still just feeding into this incredibly inefficient system.”
The future of LUARCC
Andrew Bruck characterized LUARCC as a short-term investment that could lead to significant long-term savings and, given that reality, he said that the decision to defund the commission was shortsighted. Roberts did not respond to a follow-up question regarding the argument that the potential benefits that could be yielded from funding LUARCC would do more for the fiscal health of the state than the amount saved by cutting LUARCC’s funding.
“We really need to consolidate our consolidation policies,” Bruck said. “LUARCC is a great way to start that process. Let’s start with what we already have.”
LUARCC Chairman Fisher made the same point: “We have an entity that was the result of a thoughtful legislature. Let us be the focal point and be responsible for starting this process.”
Roberts did not respond to a follow-up question asking when, if at all, Gov. Christie plans to restore LUARCC’s funding.
Jon Shure at the Center on Budget and Policies Priorities cautioned that bringing LUARCC back to life would not necessarily be a cure-all, noting that experience has shown that a “carrot-only” approach has not been effective. The case of the Princetons exemplifies how residents can resist consolidation even when the cost-savings are clear.
That resistance has led some to conclude that stronger medicine is needed.
Such an approach was actually proposed a few years ago by then-Governor Jon Corzine.
In his 2008 budget, Corzine proposed to drastically cut state property tax relief aid to municipalities with fewer than 10,000 residents. In that proposal, towns with between 5,000 and 10,000 residents would have received half of their usual allotment of state aid, and towns with fewer than 5,000 residents would have received no aid at all. At the same time, Corzine would have offered $32 million in grants to help towns that did consolidate.
That proposal did not make it into the final budget, according to Bruck, largely because the New Jersey State League of Municipalities lobbied so hard against it.
“It would be unnatural if you didn’t look at the education system”
Some advocates and elected officials in New Jersey point out that the bulk of residents’ property taxes go to fund the state’s education system, where there is also a significant amount of redundancy and inefficiency.
Peter Kasabach, executive director of the non-profit group New Jersey Future, which advocates for sustainable development in New Jersey, said that the issue of school district consolidation warranted at least as much attention as municipal consolidation. “We aren’t talking about closing schools,” he said. “We’re talking about consolidating administrations, so that instead of having eight superintendents, you have one.”
There are actually more school districts in New Jersey than there are municipalities, because many towns will have their own K-8 district while sending students to a regional 9-12 district.
Kasabach argues that it is also within LUARCC’s mandate to address school district consolidation. “If they’re looking into municipal efficiency, why not look into efficiencies in the school system, as well?” he asked.
LUARCC’s chair Jack Fisher said that he was open to the idea. “Of course if we can help facilitate any kind of sharing of services, we would do that. It would be unnatural if you didn’t look at the education system.”
Under its charter, the Commission would also have the power to identity specific school districts that should consolidate, Fisher said, and it could work with the State Department of Education to determine which districts to focus on.
“Again, it’s just a question of us getting the financial resources so that we have the worker bees that can go out and do this,” Fisher added.