To Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), nothing underscores the need for New Jersey to take a tough approach to shared services to cut property taxes more than what happened in his home county when Wenonah looked into consolidating police services with neighboring Mantua.
"Wenonah has the highest property taxes in Gloucester County, and residents would have saved $400 a year in property taxes," Sweeney noted at a recent New Jersey Conference of Mayors seminar in Atlantic City. Furthermore, the police chief and sergeant in Wenonah's seven-member police department were about to retire, so merging with Mantua's 29-member force should have been easy.
But as soon as Democratic Mayor Tommy Lombardo and Councilman John Howard started pushing the issue, "signs started popping up over town saying 'Save Our Police Department,' and the Republicans turned it into a campaign issue," Sweeney said.
Residents gathered 500 signatures to put a referendum on the ballot, and in November, more than 62 percent of Wenonah residents voted no on the merger question. The town elected two antimerger Republicans to the Wenonah Borough Council, effectively putting an end to consideration of the question for at least the next year.
"When Wenonah voted not to consider merging police departments, its residents were saying, 'We don't care about saving money.' So why shouldn't we cut state aid to municipalities that don't care enough to lower their own property taxes when they have the opportunity to do so?" Sweeney demanded. "We've tried the carrot. We need to try the stick."
For the second year in a row, Sweeney is pushing a controversial shared services bill that would empower New Jersey's Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission (LUARCC) to determine objectively where municipalities could save money by sharing services. Cost-saving options would be put to a public referendum, and if the voters refuse — as Wenonah's residents did — their town would lose state aid equivalent to what the property-tax cost savings would have been.
Sweeney's bill, S-2, is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, and the Senate president said he was optimistic that he could get the bill through the legislature this year.
William G. Dressel Jr., executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, likes the carrots in Sweeney's shared services bill — including dropping Civil Services mandates and leaving existing union contracts in place until new contracts are negotiated for the merged department — but he and other mayors are adamantly opposed to Sweeney's "big stick."
"Voters should hold elected officials accountable, not the other way around," Dressel insisted in a letter to the state's 566 mayors. "We must oppose any proposal which would, on the one hand, allow the voters to express their will, but, on the other hand, inform those voters that they will be punished, if their will does not comport with that of a majority of the appointed members of the LUARCC."
Sweeney's bill is working its way through the Legislature as a new wave of plans to save property tax dollars through police consolidation is being debated throughout the state: • Somerset County towns have until August to decide whether to participate in a plan to merge 19 municipal police departments into one countywide police department with five regional precincts — a plan that would actually increase total police staffing by 14 patrolmen to 606, while saving $44 million over the next decade. • Camden City officials were in state Superior Court this week fighting a drive by the Fraternal Order of Police to force a binding referendum onto the ballot to block the planned merger of Camden County's municipal police departments into a single countywide department — a measure that Sweeney and Republican Gov. Chris Christie have both supported. • And in Bergen County, where 15 municipalities are studying potential police mergers under a grant from the county prosecutor, the Demarest council on Tuesday agreed reluctantly to citizens' demands that it hold a nonbinding referendum on plans to merge the Demarest Police Department into the Bergen County Police Department before the council votes on any final merger plan.
Sweeney, who championed shared services while director of the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders from 1997 to 2010, says he has seen too many courageous municipal officials pilloried over the years for having the courage to take on home rule.
"When you have the courage to do the right thing, you shouldn't be punished," Sweeney told a roomful of mayors attending the New Jersey Conference of Mayors convention on April 27. "We want to help you by taking the local politics out of it."
To Sweeney, taking local politics out of the issue is justifiable because high property taxes are not just a local issue, but a state issue. New Jersey's average $7,500 property tax bill, Sweeney argues, is what makes the state noncompetitive, and while the 2 percent cap law he sponsored will hold down future property tax increases, it will also force municipalities to cut services if they're not diligent in finding cost savings.
It's too important an issue to the future economic prosperity and survival of the state to allow cost-saving plans to become snarled in emotional appeals to home rule and special interests, Sweeney argues.
"When I was on the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders, we took over EMS," Sweeney noted. "The average response time was 15 minutes, we had it down to 5:53, and the national average was eight minutes. But we still had two towns that didn't want to join. When towns refuse to cooperate when the service is free and the service is better, what are you going to do? That's why we need legislation that changes the system by putting in a penalty — a loss of state aid — for towns that refuse to help themselves."