Public safety is a primary concern for all families, a priority for government, and the key to sustaining quality of life for every taxpayer. All else follows. Public safety is also one of the largest, if not the largest expense of local government. There are a number of reasons for this, some of which are attributable to our State’s history.
More than one hundred years ago, New Jersey was hit by a fast-growing phenomenon known as “Boroughitis.” Prompted by the Borough Act of 1878, local incorporation became possible through a simple act of petitioning, allowing for home rule, a Mayor and 6 Councilmember form of government, and independent school systems. New Jersey went from having less than 20 boroughs to having hundreds and ultimately 566 municipalities in all. In Bergen County, 56 of our 70 municipalities are boroughs.
This was not necessarily bad. Travel was difficult, response time was lengthy, self-reliance and neighbor-helping neighbor were critical to everyday life, more so in emergent situations. Incorporating locally meant services were more available, children were schooled closer to home and, hopefully, tax dollars were spent more frugally.
Over the last century, as New Jersey grew, so did local governments, services and costs. The evolution of individual municipalities remains clearly evident in our town-centered departments, the 603 school districts that exist throughout the state and our unique local identities. The expense of operating in these municipal silos, however, has become increasingly unsustainable for taxpayers and in many instances the perks of home rule less prominent as manpower and services are reduced to cut costs. Times and technology have changed and we must too.
The state mandated 2% budget cap has slowed local spending and promotes a change in municipal thinking. Today the key to maintaining local quality of life is through sharing services. Shared services allow municipalities to maintain their local identities while capitalizing on economies of scale in purchasing and contracts, producing cost-savings through shared service agreements and cooperatives. Many Bergen towns have entered into agreements for everything from road paving to municipal courts, helping to offset rising municipal costs. Savings are not the only potential advantage to cooperative efforts. Services also improve with access to wider networks, broader skill sets and cutting edge technology that many municipal governments cannot independently afford.
Moving in this direction is not easy. The Borough of Demarest had been working to make this happen with its most critical service and largest budgetary line item, Public Safety. Over the last nine months and with a referendum reflecting wide public support, Demarest negotiated with the Bergen County Police Department to enter into such a Shared Services Agreement. The Agreement would allow Demarest officers to become part of the larger regional Bergen County Police Department. Every possible aspect of law enforcement and financial impact was examined. Savings and benefits to both
parties are significant.
As with every major change, however, critics line up and politics plays a role. False statements are made and fear is instilled. Would the rest of the county be subsidizing Demarest patrols? Would the increased pension benefits for Demarest officers offset savings? Would it be cheaper to hire all new officers instead of current Demarest officers at parody salaries? Despite the answers; no, no and yes, the fact remained that local and county taxpayers would reap significant savings, and services would remain the same or better. Importantly, it would be not be a mandate, but rather a first small step toward a new and improved way of thinking being advanced throughout the State, but not in Bergen, due to intramural politics.
When the majority of my fellow Freeholders voted down this Shared Services Agreement on Friday, the result was the perpetuation of what has become the status quo for New Jersey: rising costs and cuts in service. As a result, the County will lose $2.7 million in revenue and the County Police will now hire at least eight of the twelve additional officers it needs to operate efficiently. The Borough of Demarest will do what it must to reign in costs, a plan described by the Mayor as police layoffs to maintain its current budget. So, who wins here? Not taxpayers. Unless elected officials are willing to change their thinking and support a step in this direction, taxpayers will keep paying too much for local government services.
Maura McMahon DeNicola (R-Franklin Lakes) is an elected Freeholder in Bergen County, New Jersey, and a friend of ‘The Save Jersey Blog.’