From the perspective of Trenton observer Bill Dressel, everybody's gone to sleep at the Statehouse since the July passage of a 2 percent tax cap.

But among local officials?

"It's bedlam," said Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

While the Democratic-controlled Legislature has taken minimal action on the so-called tool kit of proposals designed to help local governments keep property-tax increases under the new limit, lawmakers are facing pressure - from the governor's office to township halls - to get moving.

In recent weeks, mayors skittish about next year's budgets have converged on the Statehouse to press for action, while Gov. Christie has berated the Legislature for slow progress.

Christie's spokesman, Kevin Roberts, on Tuesday chided the Legislature for limiting a Senate committee hearing on arbitration reform to "discussion only" and questioned lawmakers' priorities.

He sarcastically noted that the crowded legislative schedule included bills that would require that cats and dogs released from shelters be sterilized and that would declare October "Agent Orange Awareness Month."

But legislative leaders countered that they are poised to act on arbitration and civil-service proposals, two key pieces of the tool kit.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said the upper house would introduce final versions of bills on both topics by the end of the month and act on them in November.

The Senate has been researching programs around the country as it works on a civil-service bill, he said. Sweeney added that he was not sure whether the bill to be considered Thursday, which would ban arbitrators from awarding any settlement that would increase public employees' compensation in excess of the 2 percent cap, would be the final product.

"I wish it was a faster process, but we need to get it right," Sweeney said. "These are major reforms that are going to have a long-lasting impact on the state."

The process is on schedule, he said, and the Legislature is committed to getting it done before the end of the year, a deadline that Christie has set for adopting the tool kit as well as changes to ethics, pension and education policies.

Assembly Democrats, who are finalizing their own arbitration and civil-service bills for introduction, said in a statement Tuesday that the measures would likely get a hearing on Monday, followed by a vote on approval later this month.

The Legislature already has voted on some of the measures supported by Christie.

Bills passed by the Senate would cap unused sick-leave payouts for all public employees at $15,000 and ban new employees of organizations such as the New Jersey League of Municipalities, School Boards Association, and Association of Counties from enrolling in state pension and health plans.

And an Assembly committee recently approved a measure that allows more groups, such as the League of Municipalities, to file complaints against unfunded state mandates.

Dressel said lawmakers had addressed low-hanging fruit. Binding arbitration, civil service, and pension reforms are the core issues, he said.

Local governments face an average increase of 22 percent in contributions to the pension system next year. Towns will have to pay 12 percent more for employees in the state health-insurance plan.

Both expenses fall outside the cap, meaning that taxes are almost certain to rise well above 2 percent.

Local governments also are coping with a downturn in revenues, as a result of a weak economy and substantial increase in tax appeals. Mount Laurel, for example, has seen the value of taxable assets drop by $20 million in the previous year. That figure was rising by about $50 million annually as recently as five years ago, Mayor Jim Keenan said.

Keenan, a Christie supporter, questioned how towns could be told to trim costs without being given the tools to do so. He compared the situation to someone telling him to carve a pumpkin with only a spoon.

"I'll get it done," he said, "but it's not going to be a nice-looking pumpkin."

Evesham Mayor Randy Brown said that he was disappointed at how slowly the Legislature had addressed the tool kit, but that lawmakers of both parties had guaranteed him that the measures would be passed before the end of the year and in time for the township to prepare its budget.

"I really hope politics doesn't get in the middle of this because at the end of the day, the only people that are going to hurt are going to be the taxpayers," he said.

Gloucester Township is moving ahead with its 2011 budget, which faces a $4 million deficit. Mayor David Mayer said the municipality was laying off seven people in the construction office, selling some property, moving forward with energy audits and solar panels on the municipal building, and going out to bid for trash collection jointly with Cherry Hill.

Mayer, a former legislator, supports a tool kit and said civil-service rules have grown so bureaucratic that they handcuff mayors from making decisions even if they would be more efficient.

Still, he said, "I'm not waiting for the governor or the Legislature to act. I need to act as a mayor and make the cuts where I need to make the cuts."

Contact staff writer Maya Rao at 856-779-3220 or mrao@phillynews.com

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