It’s not unusual for neighboring towns and boroughs to collaborate in some way, but now Gov. Phil Murphy is encouraging municipalities to consolidate in order to cut costs.
“People say I don’t want my town consolidated with another town. They like their town, that’s why they moved there,” said Michael Darcy, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities.
Sharing services is something Weehawken Mayor Rich Turner knows a lot about. He is the mayor of one of five different municipalities that has have been sharing a fire department for 20 years.
“You have to convince people that you’re going to create a new identity, so basically now we have a new identity and it’s called the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue,” said Turner.
Turner says the biggest challenge he faced merging five different fire department from five different municipalities was coming up with a contract that everyone could agree on.
“It was extremely difficult, extremely time consuming,” he said. “You had five different municipalities. You probably had 10-plus unions, you had different pay scales, you had different structures.”
Turner says, two decades later, he believes sharing services was cost saving, but says it didn’t happen overnight.
“In the initial stages, if you have less chiefs, and less deputies, and a more efficient operation, you will see savings. But eventually, taxes will never stay the same unless everything else stayed the same,” Turner said. “I think if we were all individual still, I think individually for the fire departments we would be paying a lot more.”
But Darcy says consolidation won’t solve all of Jersey’s problems.
“Now what you can do is say, what we found for efficiency purposes, we don’t need a full-time, tenured municipal clerk. We can share that position with another community,” said Darcy.
In 2013 Gov. Chris Christie implemented the Common Sense Shared Services Pilot Program Act. It’s a program that makes it easier for municipalities to share services in order to provide less costly local government services. In November, Murphy included Monmouth and Atlantic County in the pilot program.
He enlisted the help of the former mayor of Harding Nicholas Platt and the former mayor of Summit Jordan Glatt to serve as co-shared services czars for the state. Platt is a Republican and Glatt is a Democrat. The state pilot program would make it easier for towns to remove tenured positions in order to engage in shared service agreements.
“Town A has maybe tens of millions of dollars in debt. Town B has no debt. Why would Town B want to consolidate with Town A and assume that level of debt?” Darcy asked.
It’s a move that Darcy says can become tricky if one of the towns comes with extra baggage.
“I can tell you that it’s not a silver bullet solution to New Jersey’s property tax challenges. That it is certainly not. What it is, is another tool to try and create efficiency,” he said.
Darcy says the governor is also offering technical support for towns who may need assistance with budgeting and merging with other municipalities. Both Darcy and Turner agree that it is not a solution to lowering property taxes.