TRENTON – “Do you think this is a do-nothing Legislature?” Senate Budget Chairman Paul Sarlo, (D-36), of Wood-Ridge, asked Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Lori Grifa during her testimony before his panel Wednesday.
Sarlo put one of Gov. Chris Christie’s chief administrators on the stand to answer for the governor, which gave Grifa the opportunity – to the quiet consternation of some Dems – to reopen the toolkit discussion.
Sarlo humorously asked if the “good-looking” crew of Dems could be called do-nothings, and Grifa, playing along, avoided the question – humorously.
“Emphasis on good-looking,” she said.
Sarlo went on. “To say that we’re not doing anything, we’re working on it,” he said. “I believe that we’ve enacted a good portion of the large measures…I need this administration to back that (‘do-nothing’ claim) up.”
Continuing the comedic routine, he said, “We hear more toolkit phrases than we hear Charlie Sheen yelling, ‘Winning.’ ”
He asked her what toolkit bills in particular are needed now.
She didn’t engage. “You have the list in front of you and I don’t…You tell me,” Grifa said.
Sarlo keyed in on a shared service bill sponsored by state Sen. Steve Sweeney, (D-3), of West Deptford, which holds state aid from towns unwilling to engage in shared services with neighboring towns.
“I’m assuming that (toolkit bill) will get done,” Sarlo said. But he minimized its immediate effect. “How is that going to help us with property taxes?”
Grifa said it would cut costs, point blank, and she pivoted to civil service regulations that keep towns from engaging in the shared services being coerced by the Sweeney bill.
But only one-third of towns use civil service, he said, so what about the other two-thirds of the municipalities. “They don’t want to hear about (these bills).”
Grifa said, “I disagree with you Senator. I’m sorry.”
Those two-thirds of the towns, she said, cannot share services and find efficiencies with neighboring towns that use civil service – so the majority is as stuck as the minority.
“It’s arcane and virtually impossible to work with,” Grifa said of civil service requirements that date back to an era when worker protections were, by and large, absent. Making even the “smallest, common-sense change,” she said, presents a “terrible, terrible burden.”
They spoke about sick leave reforms and handling the possible consequence of landslide retirements should banked time be taken back by legislation.
But Sarlo came back to his point: “You still haven’t given me the tool that I can go back to mayors with…I’ve said from the beginning, it’s an empty toolkit.”
He excluded pension and healthcare reforms from his comments earlier.
“They were never part of the toolkit,” he said. “And they’re outside the cap anyway.”
Aside from those two major initiatives, Sarlo said, the only immediate answer to the taxation problem, especially in a struggling economy, is to maintain or increase state aid.
State Sen. Linda Greenstein, (D-14), of Plainsboro, asked Grifa why funding for the consolidation-greasing group, LUARCC (Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission), was zeroed in this budget.
Grifa said the administration supports consolidation “100 percent,” but doubted that any organization could convince two entities to merge or consolidate.
“This is a heavy lift, Senator,” she said. “This one absolutely has to happen organically.”
Also, she said the expertise that LUARCC provided the department was duplicative given a member of her staff is deeply knowledgeable about the process of mergers and consolidations.
Attempts at “compulsory consolidation” have failed, the commissioner said, but some organic mergers have been coming on: a couple of school districts have joined forces and the Camden County police and fire realignment has been raising eyebrows.
“It’s so exciting from my perspective to watch,” Grifa said, as rivalries develop between regions that are trying to get the answer to the taxation problem first.
Having heard about the DCA’s work in Camden, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo asked Grifa to address county mayors about the possibility of finding savings through similar arrangements.
Greenstein applauded those efforts, but questioned whether the commission was still serving a purpose. “I still think we need some sort of structure in place to let it happen,” she told Grifa.