TRENTON – Senate President Steve Sweeney’s bill that essentially forces towns to share or consolidate services (S2) or risk losing state aid sounds like a nice concept.
But actually trying to go through the process of merging services, if not whole towns, has proven to be difficult. That was the consensus of mayors attending an annual legislative day at the Statehouse Wednesday.
But Sweeney said at the annual N.J. League of Municipalities’ Mayors Legislative Day there’s a lot left to do.
Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr said one of the challenges is combining a non-civil-service town, such as hers, with a town that has civil service regulations.
Mahr pointed out that the Assembly’s previous version of Sweeney’s bill gave municipalities the freedom to opt out of civil service. However, a more recent bill said that any two towns that merged would be considered civil service towns.
Suzanne Walters, mayor of Stone Harbor, said while much of the focus has been on town officials keeping a tight rein on costs, she said the portion of property that goes to school districts must be scrutinized, since they make up a huge portion of a resident’s tax bill.
“School taxes have to be looked at as part of the property taxes,” she said.
But Sen. Paul Sarlo, (D-36), of Wood-Ridge, pointed out the reason school taxes have been high is because the state hasn’t put enough state aid toward them.
He pointed out it was Gov. Jon Corzine who put in place a revised formula that called for more funding to most school districts. But that level of funding has yet to be achieved, he said.
“We have not fully funded that formula,” he said. “School aid does have an impact on property taxes.”
Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith said sharing services has been difficult in cities, which tend to have large police and fire departments.
“I think that a major challenge is trying to force that in urban communities,” he said.
About the challenges of sharing services, Sweeney acknowledged that “there’s not a one size fits all.”
That’s why, he said, there is a commission, LUARCC, the Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission, that reviews each application of sharing services and mergers and determines whether it’s worthwhile to do it.
“My point is… a lot of towns do shared services…and it works,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney’s bill, S2, was passed in the Senate last November 25-9 and referred to an Assembly committee.