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With nation’s highest taxes, New Jersey presses towns to share services

One example of how N.J. communities share services to save money: More than half the towns in Camden County buy road salt together in bulk.

A salt stockpile on bank of the Schuykill to be sold to town and state highway departments; Camden County is buying salt in bulk for the majority of its towns to save them money.
A salt stockpile on bank of the Schuykill to be sold to town and state highway departments; Camden County is buying salt in bulk for the majority of its towns to save them money.Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer

Winter storms are inevitable, but more than half the towns in Camden County don’t deal with one seasonal nuisance: bargaining with vendors over the price of road salt.

The county buys salt on behalf of 20 communities, and it estimates that using bulk purchasing has lowered the per-ton purchase price for the towns by as much as 20 percent.

It also negotiates the price per ton that 33 of its 37 municipalities pay for trash disposal, and 35 municipalities pay for disposal of recyclables. Nearly all use the county’s system for dispatching first responders. That has saved Camden City and Winslow Township nearly $3 million annually during the last three years, county spokesman Dan Keashen said Monday. This year, the county police department took on Internal Affairs duties for Haddon Township’s police department.

As the state intensifies its efforts to get local governments to pool resources and cut costs, Camden County has embraced the concept.

“New Jersey in itself — and Camden County is no different — has too much government and too much redundancy in government service," Keashen said. “We’re still looking to provide [other] regionalized services at reduced cost, because of economies of scale. ... A lot of municipalities are taking a hard look” at sharing services.

Some share municipal court buildings. Some share police officers. Towns are considering sharing public works services.

Gov. Phil Murphy, the legislature, and the two former mayors the governor appointed seven months ago to lead the state’s shared services push have been moving to make collaboration easier. Supporters see sharing as a way of making local governments more efficient and chipping away at the state’s property taxes — the highest in the nation.

At a shared services symposium at Drew University in Morris County last month, the governor said he is asking state officials to recommend three roles that local officials should consider transferring to the county level — such as emergency dispatch, public health, and permitting — in time to include in his budget address in February.

Legislators passed a bill this fall that allows Bergen County to try out a countywide construction code enforcement office in a pilot program.

“Every percentage point we can shave is real tax relief. And every agreement to share services between communities or within counties ... can help tick that number down," Murphy told about 50 North Jersey local officials, plus their staffers. “We know that we as a state need to be a partner in this effort from the outset.”

Murphy also said he supported the creation of a pilot program to form two countywide school districts, a move that a group of legislators, university professors, and fiscal policy and tax specialists recommended in an August report. The state has roughly 600 districts, about half of which are K-4, K-5, K-6, K-8, and K-9.

He directed the state’s Department of Community Affairs to hire two staffers to work specifically on shared-services issues.

The state also is working to reduce one obstacle to municipalities sharing services: start-up costs. Local officials typically need to hire outside firms to conduct feasibility studies to determine whether sharing services would be cost-effective. Those studies, which can cost up to $50,000, don’t always find cost savings, and sometimes they end up forgotten in some drawer.

State officials plan to start undertaking these at lower cost to the municipalities and to help with implementation. An online shared-services portal gives local officials a starting point to get help from the state.

The state has not figured out a solution to another obstacle: State rules don’t allow “civil service” communities to merge departments with their non-civil-service peers, because of differences in how employees can be laid off. A bill proposed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) that would address the problem has languished for years.

Jordan Glatt, former mayor of Summit, Union County, and Nicolas Platt, former mayor of Harding Township, Morris County, have been traveling around the state meeting with small groups of local officials since the governor appointed them "shared-services czars” in May. They plan on organizing other regional conferences in other parts of the state.

They had expected to spend much of their time persuading local officials to consider working together more. But residents are fed up with property taxes and local leaders are feeling the pressure, Glatt said. “The appetite from the elected officials has been huge,” he said.

Camden County is one of seven in a state pilot program that makes sharing services easier. In these counties, municipalities that share departments are allowed to remove certain tenured employees — municipal clerk, a chief financial officer, an assessor, a tax collector, a municipal treasurer, or a municipal superintendent of public works — if the positions are redundant. The legislature and governor last month added Atlantic and Monmouth Counties to the five-year-old pilot, which also includes Ocean, Morris, Sussex, and Warren Counties.

At monthly meetings of the Camden County Mayors' Association, local leaders talk successes and failures of shared-services attempts.

Gary Passanante, mayor of Somerdale, frequently fields calls from his peers asking for his opinion on this or that idea for collaboration. The self-described “very strong believer in the value of shared services” helps with research and identifying possible legal implications.

Passanante used to be the county’s shared services coordinator. He also was a member of a dormant commission the state formed in 2007 to study the structure and functions of local government and to identify opportunities for municipal cooperation.

Somerdale shares emergency medical services with the boroughs of Magnolia and Lawnside. Somerdale and Berlin Township use the same municipal engineer. The borough’s public works department handles landscaping and maintenance for a school district in return for the district’s handling information technology for the borough.

“We have a real, major problem, and shared services absolutely helps, but it won’t solve the problem," Passanante said. "There just isn’t enough savings to make that leap.”

But, he said, "there’s a lot of opportunity if you just be a little creative to be able to save taxpayers some money.”

This story has been updated to correct Camden County’s role in the disposal of trash and recyclables for its municipalities. The county negotiates disposal prices; it does not collect the materials.