In a recent front page article in the Trenton Times (“Property Taxes Rise, But Slowly” Jan 8, 2012), Governor Christie was indicating that he is not yet satisfied with just attaining a 2.4 percent hike in taxes this past year, “but we’re making progress.” This is a remarkable achievement for New Jersey and the pains communities have shared are real. Mayor Frank Gambatese of South Brunswick was not so glowing of the Governor’s success having suffered layoffs and service reductions to meet this requirement. Chris Rogers, President of the New Jersey Taxpayers Association, offered a different perspective. He promotes the need for eliminating the remaining problems of duplication and unaccountability by embracing more shared services. This latter statement is at the crux of a new era for local government in New Jersey.
New Jersey suffers from the fact that every square inch of land in the state is apportioned to a city, township, village or borough. At the same time, there are 21 counties that represent another layer of government which are reluctant to lead an open discussion on the subject of serving as a lead agent for regional services delivery beyond their current mandate. County-wide services can be funded and standardized to a level of service quality desired by most. That would allow a local community or district to step in to satisfy their desire for an even higher level of service quality if they chose to fund it as a special service district. Consideration to evaluate the benefits of an economy of scale offered at a county level is limited because of the current demand for more local control. Counties presently demonstrate economies of scale with the operation of the county library system, county owned road maintenance, and regional planning responsibilities that cross all political boundaries, to name just a few. In other parts of the U.S., municipal and county governmental consolidations are beginning to happen and they are seeing successful containment of taxing requirements, improved service delivery and enhanced quality of services (see Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, KS). They are getting this done while eliminating excessive management roles, introducing technology to increase analytical capabilities for decision-making, revising job expectations of operations staff to be more holistic and flexible, and measuring service performance to add a level of transparency presently not available to the general public. There are also examples where multiple communities are transferring service delivery authority to Councils of Government to take advantage of operational efficiencies of regional systems (See North Texas Council of Governments).
Governor Christie is pushing the State of New Jersey into uncharted waters and the outcome of that effort is still up for discussion. However, the need to get local municipal leadership to embrace consolidation of communities and regional service delivery systems can’t happen fast enough. They are the stumbling block where in reality they should be the champions for sustainable change.