TRENTON – State Sen. Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) rounded up some mayors in the Statehouse today who vouched: Shared services is the biggest money saving device for towns, but Gov. Chris Christie’s toolkit doesn’t address it.
“This is not an attack, it is not an assault on the toolkit,” Sweeney said, but, “(The governor) left the biggest tool out of the kit”
Sweeney put the Gloucester County shared service playbook on display with over $24 million in budgetary savings. Ambulances, tax assessors, 911 dispatch, storm water storage, trash pick-up, deer removal.
Everything was on the table. “Just started scratching the surface,” Sweeney said, touting $270 per homeowner savings.
Sweeney said the legislature still intends to pass major toolkit bills like arbitration reform and civil service reform.
“That’s absolutely going to help these mayors with things that have been out of control for years,” Sweeney said.
He said the Department of Community Affairs is making it “almost impossible” with regulations to find mergers and consolidations that can save taxpayers money.
Plus, there isn’t enough power vested in the nonpartisan shared services wheel greaser LUARCC, or Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission.
Sweeney gathered mayors who are former or current leaders in mayors’ organizations, like the League of Municipalities.
Mayors David DelVecchio of Lambertville, Colleen Mahr of Fanwood, Brian Wahler of Piscataway, Timothy McDonough of Hope Twp., and Gary Passanante of Somerdale all concurred that shared services need help from some third-party agent and support in state law.
Passanante, who is the only mayor who sits on the LUARCC board, said if the toolkit was good for one thing, “It has woken up our mayors across the state.”
“We need to start sharing things we haven’t thought to share in the past…Those towns that were successful (in implementing the shared services),” he said, “They had the political will to get it done. Up until now there hasn’t been a push to have that political will. Now with that 2 percent cap, there is a push.”
There are legislative needs to make this happen, and LUARCC could have more power to identify opportunities and assist towns in consolidating and sharing services.
In 2008, Assembly bill A3119 was intended to rename LUARCC the “Karcher Commission,” and would have promoted an expansion of power for the commission, but it died in committee facing opposition from the League of Municipalities.
DelVechhio said shared renewable energy is being implemented in his town, although an attempt to merge police departments failed.
“The deal just kind of fell apart,” he said, because there “wasn’t a neutral party at the table.”
Mahr said Fanwood is the first municipality in Union County to farm out 911 dispatch to the county, saving $250,000 over the life of the contract, and discussions with neighboring Scotch Plains over sharing a school district are ongoing.
But public safety and public works are the big fish.
“We are under the pressure of a 2 percent cap, as are the counties, as are the boards of education,” she said. “We really have to be very creative.”
McDonough, who spent 20 years as a small town mayor, said, “We could not survive if we didn’t do shared services.”
For Wahler, what needs to happen is to make it easier to legitimatize the process.
“All of the shared services going on are handshake deals,” he said, like sharing equipment between towns. “Underground shared services that the general public doesn’t realize, but it’s going on everyday.”
Sweeney said he’s not sure if Christie is interested in shared services, or support of them.
“He hasn’t shown an interest up to this point,” Sweeney said, before recommending the legislature re-authorizes LUARCC and strengthens their powers.
“There’s rumors that LUARCC is something the administration wants to see go away,” Sweeney said.
State Senator Joe Kyrillos (R-Middletown) sent out an email supporting Sweeney’s effort while calling for immediate action on the toolkit.
“I have long been a proponent, as has the Senate President, of having municipalities realize economies of scale by sharing services where it makes sense,” Kyrillos said. “Regionalization and shared services are obviously part of the equation, but meaningful pension and arbitration reforms that will reduce labor costs are essential…We (the legislature) essentially took off the third quarter of 2010. Few organizations have this luxury. Time is ticking for the final quarter and year’s end.”
The governor quickly weighed in on Twitter.
“Sweeney agrees,” Christie wrote. “‘the tool kit will help run government better.’ Let’s see if the leg. will follow through with action.”