When the Legislature mandates that municipalities adopt a program, the Legislature now has to pay for it. That groundbreaking idea that led to landmark legislation in New Jersey and around the country was engineered by Bill Dressel. He also engineered the annual conference of municipalities in Atlantic City — the largest in the country. Dressel is a fixture in Jersey politics: he has been the voice of all 565 cities and towns and more than 13,000 elected and appointed municipal officials in the state for 41 years, the last 20 as its executive director. Today, on his first day of retirement, he spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams about his impressive career working for the League of Municipalities.
Dressel says that one of his biggest accomplishments at the League was working with others.
“The League was the catalyst in pulling everyone together in support of the constitutional amendment in the late 1980s which basically states that if the state is going to mandate a program or service onto local governments that they’ve got to come up with the dollars to pay for that program or service,” he said. “Even today when legislatures are looking at proposed legislation, they’re taking the cost implications into consideration before they move it forward,” he said.
Throughout his time with the League, he’s worked with nine different governors. He says the biggest difference now from when he first started are the number of interest groups of today.
“When I began my League service, there were less than 100 registered lobbyists. Now there’s virtually thousands of registered lobbyists and organizations. There’s varying interests that are involved in the public dialogue. I don’t think that that is a bad thing, but it certainly is challenging when you’re trying to promote your particular agenda,” Dressel said.
He says the easiest governors to work with were Christie Whitman (1994-2001) and Jim McGreevey (2002-2004). The most challenging? Our current governor, Chris Christie.
“Gov. Whitman was always there and always responded in a very timely fashion through her commissioner or her executive staff. And Gov. McGreevey, I’ve got to give him kudos because he was the first mayor that was the governor of this state and he was very understanding of our issues,” he said. “The most challenging? I would think would be Gov. Christie, our current governor. That does not mean in any way that we were always in opposition to him. In fact the governor stood for a lot of management reforms like the cap on interest arbitration awards for fire and police which was signed into law last year. But trying to get clear policy direction on such issues as say affordable housing through the Council of Affordable Housing — that was tough. The provision of affordable housing — that was probably one of the most pressing issues not only for this administration, but going back over 40 years, but we had a hard time trying to get clear direction.”
When asked about property taxes and if they’re still a big issue, Dressel said, “Absolutely.”
“That would be probably one of my biggest failures, quite frankly, in that when I came in in 1974 we had the state’s first income tax and there were a number of component bills to provide property tax relief. But over the years as the cost of government increased, it’s been more and more challenging to deal with that and unfortunately trying to get a political consensus on both sides of the political aisle, that’s tough and that’s something that I hope happens in the future,” Dressel said.