TRENTON – After 90 minutes of testimony, the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee released a shared services bill sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) of West Deptford.
The bill, S2, would encourage municipalities to share services, according to recommendations from the state Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission (LUARCC), which is part of the Department of Community Affairs. If not agreed to, the town refusing to share services with another town would be penalized by having their state aid withheld, the bill states.
Sens. Jeff Van Drew, Sam Thompson and Brian Stack voted to release the bill, while Sens. Chris Connors and Ron Rice voted no.
Sweeney testified before the committee about the importance of getting towns to share services and cut the cost of government.
“There’s enormous savings to be had if we just look beyond our own borders,” Sweeney said. “We have too much government.”
He said the “carrot” approach of providing incentives hasn’t worked, simply because towns just didn’t feel like entering into them.
“We are a home rule state and that’s what we’re fighting against,” he said.
He said his own home county of Gloucester serves as a model, since all 24 towns entered into a countywide police dispatch system. He added that 16 of the 24 towns have also signed on to county-run EMT services.
The New Jersey Business and Industry Association and New Jersey Association of Realtors both support the bill.
But numerous groups opposed it.
The New Jersey Association of County Health Officers opposed the bill, saying it would “decimate the public health infrastructure.” There are only 96 health offices serving 566 municipalities, down significantly from 30 years ago. The bill, the group said, could lead to more cutbacks, threatening public health. The state ranks 49th out of 50 states in public health funding.
Executive Director Bill Dressel of the N.J. League of Municipalities said there’s still a concern with the “stick” approach.
“It takes away the voters’ rights,” said league President and Mount Arlington Mayor Art Ondish. “A bad deal might happen.”
He said his tiny Morris County town sought to merge its police department with another municipality, but both towns’ residents disapproved both times.
But several workers unions – CWA, UFCW, police and firefighter unions, the Tax Collectors and Treasurers Association of New Jersey, and the N.J. Transportation Union – opposed the bill. Among the issues they had was the overturning of civil service rules that could lead to patronage and scrapping of collective bargaining language.
An official with AFSCME, Rex Reed, said it was a veiled attempt to remove tenure protections for workers and would make hiring and termination of workers too political.
“It puts the welfare of people as a whole at risk,” he said.
Sweeney said if a few towns start to share services, the trend should catch on.
“It’s contagious once you start to do it,” he said.
Rice, (D-28), of Newark, feared the bill may impact civil service workers, particularly minorities, and called for civil service reform.
While he supports the concept of sharing services between municipalities, “I’m not willing to support it at the expense of working people.”
“I can’t really support the legislation as written.”
But Van Drew said he believes the legislation is intended more toward smaller towns that are reluctant to share services. He added that past efforts have been very cumbersome and slow, and he would oppose any effort to scrap civil service.