District 9 Legislators Pan Forced Consolidation

Jul 18, 2018

Earlier this year, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney formed a group of legislators and fiscal experts to examine New Jersey’s state and local tax structure. The Economic and Fiscal Policy Working Group came up with 60 suggestions, ranging in everything from school funding to its underfunded pension system.

But one suggestion that really jumped out was the state to require municipalities with fewer than 5,000 people to merge with an adjacent, larger town. If implemented, that would force nearly 200 of the state’s 565 municipalities to merge, according to 2010 U.S. Census population data.

Such a move would put an end to municipalities on Long Beach Island, where all communities have year-round populations under that figure.

To no surprise, that concept was denounced by the 9th District legislative team of Sen.Christopher J. Connors, Assemblyman Brian E. Rumpf and Assemblywoman DiAnne C. Gove, whose constituency includes the Island. In a statement issued July 16, they urged residents to reject the “false narrative” that forced municipal consolidation would produce a windfall of savings for taxpayers: “Forced or coerced municipal consolidation is an issue that rears its head periodically but, nonetheless, should be taken seriously given its severe and wide-ranging implications for representative government in our state,” the delegation said.

They said that for the most part, tax bills are high because of the “broken state school funding formula and Trenton’s misplaced spending priorities.”

“Smaller government has proven far more effective in providing services as opposed to cities, and the State, for that matter,” they said. “So the question remains: why are smaller and mid-sized municipalities, as a whole, even being labeled as culprits of high taxation? It’s one thing for Trenton to lecture other government entities about the need to be more fiscally responsible. But it’s an entirely different level of arrogance for Trenton to compel municipalities to operate under the city model largely defined by an expansive, cumbersome and costly bureaucracy, as if this somehow represents reform.”

The delegation noted municipal operations comprise only a small portion of property tax bills. They said under the 3-percent tax levy cap, municipalities have little flexibility to increase spending, whereas the state has no such limitations on spending and can, essentially, “cook up overly-optimistic revenue projections to give the appearance – at least on paper – of a balanced budget.”

“Forced consolidation advocates fail to see that the imposition of the cap has already compelled municipalities to share services, when practical,” they said. “But to be effective, shared services agreements should be left to elected local officials who know better than a Trenton bureaucrat how to run their municipality or, more importantly, how residents want their town run.”

The team said forced consolidation also disenfranchises voters by denying them the basic right to choose how their town is run.

“Voters are highly likely to reject the ‘Trenton knows best’ policy approach just on principle,” they said. “Generally speaking, there will almost always be winners and losers when municipalities consolidate. Taxpayers of one municipality are going to take on the debt, mismanaged services and/or expenses of the other municipality.”

They concluded, “Let’s call forced consolidation what it really is: a diversion from the real, politically-driven and correctable causes of high taxation.”

In a separate interview, Gove, a former Long Beach Township mayor, said Island municipalities have already secured shared services with construction code enforcement and other inspection services.

“Bigger isn’t always better,” she said. “My District 9 colleagues were also former mayors (Connors in Lacey Township and Rumpf in Little Egg Harbor Township), so we’re all very familiar with the way smaller towns operate. It’s the people who have the right to join in with a larger town, not the state imposing its will on them.”

Gove said she had no idea if this consolidation plan would ever reach the legislative process.

“Similar ideas have been kicked around before, and nothing ever materialized,” she said. “We’ll have to wait and see. It’s one of many ideas being discussed, so it might not make it past that. But if it does, we will strongly oppose it. ”

Richard McGrath, spokesman for the Senate Majority Office, said, “The Economic and Fiscal Policy Working Group is currently reviewing recommendations that address the state’s serious economic and fiscal challenges. While some of the ideas such as municipal consolidation need more review and public vetting, there is no doubt that we must be taking actions to reduce costs and find efficiencies in government. It is clearer than ever that the Legislature and the governor must commit to the types of new and bold ideas that will soon be released by this working group of experts.”

Harvey Cedars Borough Clerk Daina Dale said, “Our small government runs very efficiently, probably more efficient than a lot of big towns. Many people in town like it that way, such as having a small police force that give residents an opportunity to get to know them, which is harder to do in a large community. ”

— Eric Englund

ericenglund@thesandpaper.net

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