In just over a year since Gov. Phil Murphy appointed two former mayors, Jordan Glatt and Nicolas Platt, as “shared-services czars,” the pair has crisscrossed the state, hosting town hall meetings and talking with hundreds of officials to try to persuade more towns to collaborate. The hope is to cut costs and control property taxes.
For the mammoth task, which state lawmakers have been trying to tackle for decades, the two were given a “shoestring” budget of $47,500. Successes have been few and far between. Two North Jersey towns will share a fire department. Two other towns will build a joint sewer pumping station, spurred to action after the pair spoke at a workshop.
“Even the easy ones that everyone seems to agree on, where there are no job losses or attrition comes into play, seem to have grinding delays,” Platt said.
Politics and fears of lost community identity and jobs slow the process.
“We cannot help but be disappointed that more elected officials are not willing to invest their political capital [in] a program that will directly impact their town’s operating budget," he and Glatt said in a joint statement. "If there is frustration in this job, this is it.”
They’re hoping an influx of cash will help. The state budget the governor signed in June allocates $10 million for such collaborative initiatives, which will "put some real muscle behind the program,” Glatt said. (Lawmakers had asked for $40 million.)
The money will fund grants to smooth over the “rough spots” of contention that prevent some towns from working together and feasibility studies for municipalities considering collaboration. Those studies justifying cost savings and efficiency of shared services can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The state Department of Community Affairs also will hire two employees to focus on shared services.
Platt said “this is just a small investment given the hundreds of millions of dollars that could be saved by all of these municipalities not having the same services.”
Town officials know sharing services with neighbors — which many do to various extents — doesn’t always mean savings and isn’t a cure-all for New Jersey’s property tax problem. The state has the highest average property taxes in the country, at $8,767 in 2018.
But Glatt and Platt, the governor, and state lawmakers such as Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) think collaboration can help.
“We are probably one area where the Senate president and our governor agree," Glatt said. "They see that as a big way for New Jersey to get out of the mess it’s in fiscally.”
Last year, a fiscal policy workgroup convened by the Senate president said New Jersey needed to make some changes. Otherwise, the state will have to find savings or revenue of $9.5 billion over the next six years if it wants to balance the budget, according to the group.
The choice is clear to the pair: “Do you want to raise taxes, or do you want to share services?" Glatt said. “At the end of the day, that’s the question the mayor has to make a decision on. When you speak to the general public, overwhelmingly they’d rather share services. They’re being crushed by the property tax burden.”
Sharing services is voluntary now, but it won’t always be, Platt said.
Without consequences, “you’re not going to get any elected officials who volunteer their time to put themselves in a position to be mauled either by residents, unions, or special interest groups,” he said.
Michael Cerra, assistant executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said local governments are always interested in “reducing costs, creating efficiencies and delivering effective services, so I think municipalities are interested in what the ‘czars’ have to say and how they can facilitate these shared goals."
“But, of course, the proof is in the pudding, and with $10 million allocated, the czars now have a window and some resources,” Cerra said in a statement.
In one success story helped along by Glatt and Platt, two townships in Essex County — South Orange Village and Maplewood — plan to combine fire departments by Jan. 1. At a total of 6.5 square miles, they have three fire houses between them. Fire and police departments are the highest personnel costs municipalities face.
The average property tax bill in Maplewood is more than $15,500. That figure is more than $18,000 in South Orange. The two plan to save at least $700,000 combined once the fire department’s workforce shrinks due to retirements. They are not firing any firefighters.
Sheena Collum, village president of South Orange, said Glatt and Platt “connect us to the necessary resources for a successful implementation.” That will include the couple hundred thousand dollars the village plans to request for additional training for firefighters and other one-time costs of combining the departments.
The pair has helped the townships get over their biggest hurdle — differences in hiring practices, which make working together difficult under state law. Platt and Glatt have been working with legislators to remove those kinds of legal roadblocks.
“You literally have decades of groups that have lobbied to get [legislation] into effect to prevent this," Glatt said.
>>READ MORE: Shared services, consolidations tough sells in N.J.
He and Platt say the “big three” opportunities for service sharing are fire and police protection and schools.
Infrastructure is another large cost for municipalities. Metuchen Borough and Edison Township in Middlesex County have aging sewer pump stations within a few hundred feet of each other that need to be replaced. Within the next year, they plan to build one joint station — a move tossed around for years and spurred forward after a meeting with Glatt and Platt.