An End to NJ ‘Home Rule’?

September 1, 2011

By Steve Adubato, Ph.D. for NJTV

Like most states, New York and New Jersey have too many small towns that cost too much to run.  But New York’s situation is not nearly as bad as New Jersey’s.  While New York has more than 700 school districts and over 950 individual municipalities, New Jersey has 611 school districts and nearly 567 individual municipalities.  These Garden State fiefdoms are so small that it is impossible to achieve any economies of scale.  And that’s causing a lot of problems.

Merging and consolidating tiny New Jersey towns is an idea that is long overdue.

Belief in “home rule,” as it is called, is the belief that every town, city or borough has a right to have its own police department, fire fighters, water system, planning director and its own a school system – no matter how big or small the municipality or how much it costs.  The fact is, New Jerseyans like our own neighborhood schools, police department and fire department.  We like having the name of our town stay the same.

That’s all well and good, but absurdly high property taxes are strangling many New Jersey residents.  And beyond that, communities that refuse to change will find themselves on the verge of bankruptcy, with municipal services will be cut and state aid reduced.

Montclair is one of the towns the State of New Jersey has commended for economical best practices

The State of New Jersey has asked communities to find ways to be more economical by sharing services.  There is also a catalogue of best practices designed  to help small and struggling town learn how to they might share services in a smart and efficient way. It highlights those locations in New Jersey that have already taken the lead, including towns like Point Pleasant and Bay Head (which share a superintendent of schools); Caldwell, West Caldwell and Verona (which share a director for food services); the municipalities of Wharton and Mine Hill (which share a schools superintendent as well as services for what’s  commonly called a “child study team”); and the Montclair Township, its board of education and its public (which share a telecommunications computer network).  But unfortunately, those are but a fraction of the 567 municipalities in New Jersey.

A 2006 Monmouth University/Gannett poll found that most New Jersey residents would be “very willing" to share emergency services if it resulted in significantly reduced property taxes.

In 2006, a Monmouth University/Gannett poll found that seven out of ten New Jersey residents would be “very willing to share police and fire services if in fact it produced a significant reduction in property taxes.”

Yet in spite of those encouraging poll numbers, little has been done in the past couple of years to merge and consolidate communities.  I am talking about towns of just a few thousand people that have neglected to take steps to consolidate with neighboring towns just as small.

Meanwhile, New Jersey needs to look around:

  • Next door to us, the State of New York established what’s called the Shared Municipal Service Incentive Program (SMSI), a $25 million dollar grant program that assists municipalities to consolidate local government services, cut spending and save tax dollars. For example, grants of up to $1 million are available for municipalities seeking to merge into a single government unit, while awards of up to $300,000 are available for the development of county-wide shared service programs. During the first round, the state received 266 applications.
  • The State of Wisconsin also gives financial incentives for collaboration and consolidation too; in 2004, its legislature budgeted $45 million in incentive payment for local governments that demonstrate cost savings.
  • And in Texas, Governor Rick Perry issued an executive order mandating that school districts limit non-classroom spending to 35 percent of their total budgets; the order is expected to create strong momentum for more sharing of services and administrative costs among Texas school districts. Districts that fail to comply would eventually face sanctions, according to the Texas Education Agency.

New Jerseyans say we want smaller government.  We say we want our taxes to be brought under control.  The problem is, either we are lying to ourselves about our willingness to do what is necessary to achieve that or our political leaders are ignoring this opportunity because they are scared that mandating municipal consolidation would cause voters to vote them out of office.   Exorbitant property taxes haven’t been enough of an incentive to change; the resistance to reconsidering “home rule” remains.

I’m afraid that no one is going to act until municipalities go bankrupt; town halls are closed; massive numbers of municipal workers are laid off and citizens are simply told, “Sorry, the park is closed” or “We’ve got no more police or fire department.”

State officials encouraging the sharing of services is nice.  Best practices guidelines and polls showing support are helpful.  But they are not enough.  The time has come to mandate that this take place.  Senate President Steve Sweeney has introduced legislation, bill S-2794, which would require that a new state committee be created to identify opportunities for cost-cutting through sharing. If the towns refuse to implement the changes recommended by the commission, they would be penalized by losing state aid.  New Jersey needs to do more to emulate the hard word that towns in other similar states have done, but Senator Sweeney’s legislation is a good start.

Steve Adubato, Ph.D., currently anchors three PBS broadcasts — Caucus: New Jersey, NJ Capitol Report, and One-on-One with Steve Adubato. He also conducts interviews for NJ Today, which airs weeknights on NJTV and covers news, politics and policy from across the state.  At 26, he was elected the youngest member of New Jersey’s legislature, where he served three years.  He holds a doctorate in Mass Communications from Rutgers University.