GOERNER: N.J. a tale of too many towns
GOERNER: N.J. a tale of too many towns
New Jersey could learn a lot from New York. Both states suffer from costly layers of local governments and school districts — a major contributor to high property taxes — yet their approach to solving it could not be more different.
A recent Monmouth University poll showed that property taxes are the first concern for the majority of New Jerseyans, but neither of the major party gubernatorial candidates has a clear plan, or the courage, to offer a viable solution to the problem.
New Jersey’s next governor needs to tackle this issue head-on to make any marked difference in reducing property taxes. Meanwhile, New York has been quietly leading the way on reducing the number of local governments and encouraging more regionalized sharing of police and emergency services — two key areas that contribute to higher property taxes. Consolidation and service regionalization not only save money, they allow for more effective and efficient planning (also a long-term money saver), and improve emergency response in times of crisis.
New Jersey’s next governor can learn something from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s leadership. Unfortunately for New Jersey taxpayers, Republican Kim Guadagno is trying to run from the large shadow of an unpopular Christie and has proposed a gimmicky “circuit-breaker” plan to reduce taxes with no real specifics on how to cut spending. The Democrat, Phil Murphy, has bought his way through the primary and now employs a rope-a-dope strategy to avoid any clear plan on reducing property taxes. His recent announcement included $1.3 billion in new tax increases without addressing any significant structural reforms to improve the state’s long-term financial stability. Guadagno’s struggle to be anything-but-Christie and Murphy’s take-no-stand approach has left New Jersey residents without a major party candidate addressing the issue of home rule — a leading contributor to our highest-in-the-nation property taxes.
In 2016, I was invited to give the keynote speech at the New York Division of Local Government Services Innovation conference because when I was mayor, we consolidated the first large towns in New Jersey in over a century: Princeton Borough and Princeton Township. We saved over $3 million annually and offered better, more streamlined services to our residents as a result. New York state took notice and asked us to come up and talk about our success. It has taken a proactive role in encouraging local governments to consolidate or share services by providing technical assistance and significant financial incentives.
From the Local Government Efficiency Grant program to the $25 million Municipal Restructuring Fund, New York has added significant financial backing to encourage more service sharing, police regionalization and municipal mergers.
Even the county of Onondaga and the town of Syracuse have looked at merging, producing a consolidation report earlier this year. When a local TV affiliate came down from Syracuse to interview us in Princeton several months ago about our success, it was clear New York is committed to addressing its structural ills — ills that continue to plague our state.
In New Jersey, consolidation and service regionalization are taboo. Notwithstanding a Legislature and governor who have addressed the issue with nothing more than lip service and limp handshakes, we have two towns that have formed a citizens’ consolidation commission and are struggling to get a paltry $7,500 from the state to fund their financial analysis and feasibility study, Mount Arlington and Roxbury. These two towns have a chance to save even more than the Princetons because they would be consolidating school districts as well. But the state has been absent.
With the Mount Arlington-Roxbury request for financial assistance languishing on a desk somewhere in Trenton, the only state assistance is from the short-staffed Department of Community Affairs, which has limited firepower, to say the least. The major parties in New Jersey should take note and use New York’s proactive approach to addressing the problem of home rule as a guide.
CourageToConnect New Jersey, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that exists to further consolidation and shared services has just announced that it will step in and make the grant to Roxbury and Mount Arlington so that they can continue their work. The organization’s director, Gina Genovese, has decided to run for governor as an independent to force action on the issue of reducing the number of local governments and school districts to lower property taxes in New Jersey.
New York’s leadership on this issue should be a call to action for New Jersey’s state government. Genovese, a former mayor, has seen our state’s struggles up close in her fight for more efficient government and has embraced Cuomo’s approach to the issue. While the major party candidates dither, duck and dodge the hard choices to bring property taxes down, Genovese’s candidacy offers a clear path to lowering the costs of government in New Jersey.
Chad Goerner is a former Mayor of Princeton Township and the architect of Princeton’s successful consolidation in 2011. He is the author of “A Tale of Two Tigers – Princeton’s Historic Consolidaton” that details the history behind the successful effort. He is also on the board of CourageToConnectNJ.
[Originally posted on app.com here on September 15, 2014]