Senator Steve Sweeney wants to save you money, Save Jerseyans! Or so he says. He has put forth a bill that has been floating around in conversation for quite a while now, especially in my area of the state. The bill, S2, would punish local governments who refuse to share services by withholding state aid.
In theory it sounds like a pretty good idea. A way to really bring savings to taxpayers in the 566 municipalities across the state of New Jersey. And its so simple, too! Let’s run through a typical scenario, shall we? . . .
- Town X and Town Y both take care of a specific local service on their own. Each town pays $50,000 per year for the service (they are almost never equal but for the sake of argument, just bear with me).
- A group of super smart people in Trenton, the place where money is always allocated efficiently and responsibly, put their huge brains together and determine that if the X and Y shared the service, it would only cost $80,000 per year combined. This means each town would save $10,000 per year by sharing the service.
- X and Y do not want to share the service, for whatever reason they deem valid, and decide to keep going the way that they are.
- Just to be sure, X and Y put the issue on the ballot in November, to let the voters decide. The citizens of X and Y agree with their local officials and reject the measure. They know their respective towns, and determine that it simply does not make sense for them at this time.
- The group in Trenton informs the Treasury of X and Y’s refusal to obey their state government overlords and orders the Treasurer to eliminate $10,000 in state aid for each town, as punishment.
You see where I am going with this, yes? It might be a good thing for municipalities to be informed of shared service opportunities the they may not have been aware of. However, it is simply wrong for Trenton politicians to sweep in and dictate to municipalities how they will run their towns. Under S2, Trenton could even force towns to consolidate, which would lead to a whole new mess of problems (example: hopefully those formerly neighboring towns are not in two different legislative districts or congressional districts).
It is true that local governments are merely instruments of the state. However, New Jersey has a rich history of home rule where voters are stewards of their own local fates. If a town wants to tax the hell out of its citizens and overpay for services, that is their right. And if the voters do not wish to hold their elected officials accountable for that mismanagement, that is also their right. It should not be the prerogative of the state to come in and dictate from Trenton, because the truth is that very few local governments are run worse than our state government tends to be. If they cannot at least begin by leading by example, then they should not lead, or dictate, at all. This bill will kill local control.
Additionally, I fear that this initiative will actually discourage towns from venturing into their own, non mandated shared services agreements. Many municipalities are fairly new to the concept of sharing services and are uneasy about it. Some initiatives take hold and others fail. It is a trial and error process that is going to get better over time as we find out what works and what does not. This sort of experimentation will eventually lead to the evolution and spread of good ideas and the death of poor ones. But after S2, why would any municipality risk undertaking a shared service agreement that could fail? If it succeeds they get no benefit from Trenton, and if it fails they could be in a worse position than they were, either with higher costs or lesser service. Instead they can wait for the new Sweeney Soviet-style central planning authority to shout orders from above, and proceed with an idea that might be less effective or efficient than what could have been concocted at home. This bill will kill municipal innovation.
Finally, I think it is important that we all point out why this may be happening. Unfortunately this is likely another example of the South Jersey Democrat Machine bailing out the city of Camden. Over the last year the Camden County Freeholders have been pushing for a consolidation of local police forces into a single, county-wide police force that would be run by the Freeholder Board. Republicans in Camden County have been almost completely against the measure, but unfortunately Republicans hold no power at the county level as all of the seats are held at-large. Local towns, even those controlled by Democrats, have been against the plan because most voters seem to hate it. However, with S2, the municipal Democrats could fall in line with Sweeney and their boss while shouldering almost none of the blame. A perfect political calculation.
If S2 goes through, I would bet a year’s salary that one of the first “proposed” shared services agreements would be for every local government in Camden County to join the local police force, sending their local control to Camden City, and their local officers along with it.
This bill simply has it wrong. Shared services are generally a good thing, but they have to be done in a way that at least suggests rational thought took place. Not all shared services agreements are good for all places. Shared services should be encouraged, but not forced. Bill Dressel, the Executive Director of the League of Municipalities said it best yesterday,
Voters should hold elected officials accountable, not the other way around.